"Esmeralda, you really don't know what is down in those tunnels. I don't either -- but I have my suspicions." Riley sat on the couch with the battery operated lanterns shining over us both, creating shadows where there normally weren't any. The storm raged outside while still pushing the whispering cold through the cracks. The furnace never kicked on because it had to be a whopping twenty or twenty-five degrees inside the small house. Every word spoken came out with frosty breath, and I could feel the cold leaching into my very bones. I had pulled one of the blankets over me that I'd bought earlier and tossed one to Riley automatically.
His blanket was rumpled loosely across his middle, but then he gave off his own heat. I had just noticed that when he got mad he literally sent waves of heat off of his body, and it nearly made me want to piss him off just to warm up the room. But my sense of self-preservation kept that stupid thought pushed firmly inside my brain. An angry werewolf, human shape or furred out, wasn't to be messed with, and I doubted Uncle Harry could save me from Riley if he went fully were. I'd tweaked his nose enough to know there were limits to what he'd put up with from me, and also I knew that he hadn't had much sleep in the past twenty-four hours so that had to be adding into his control and general temperament.
"Okay, Riley. What is it exactly that you heard?" I cut to the chase, wanting him to begin telling me his werewolf pack tales. From what he'd said a few minutes ago it was traditional for werewolves to share oral histories to preserve their pasts and protect their futures. The last part was something that I'd actually figured out all on my own -- I could be a ditz I freely admitted, but I wasn't really stupid despite the commonly held belief. Uncle Harry would never share the stories and legends about me, but I knew there were plenty out there making me sound like a total idiot. I didn't care because nobody actually had the audacity to outright ask me anything, so I couldn't be bothered with the possible stories being spread about me and what I was or wasn't. Supernatural creatures had to keep their secrets and make sure they survived by any means necessary. I wasn't going to fill in the blanks, because I knew sure as the sun sets in the West that it would come back to bite me in the ass. Werewolves weren't great writers, Riley had revealed, but instead kept their history buried inside their packs.
He sighed heavily and looked at me for a long time before saying, "You realize this could get me killed?"
I paused myself before answering, "I guess so. But Riley, who the hell would I tell? It's not like I have anybody I talk to other than supernatural creatures. And anything you tell me, I wager, isn't like 'normal' bedtimes stories unless you're into the original Brothers Grimm. Right?" I wasn't happy with the lump in my throat that rose when I admitted I didn't have any human friends. Because I really didn't, and I figured out long ago I couldn't exactly share easily all the weird stuff I'd seen. That probably added into my lack of giggling girlfriends that wanted to talk all about slathering on layers of make-up and their ideal boyfriends. I was a weirdo.
He chuckled gruffly and said, "Okay, you got me there. And Harry mentioned that you didn't hang out with very many people your own age -- even many of the werewolves -- other than Bobby. But you need to swear not even to mention this to Bobby."
Bobby was another werewolf that Uncle Harry had tasked with keeping me out of trouble. He actually got me into more trouble than Uncle Harry ever suspected because he was a curious sort. I went along for more than one wild ride with Bobby. In the past few years he'd been away from me more than when I was growing up because he was getting more and more into his pack and their own brand of politics. From what I'd seen and heard that usually involved Bobby getting beaten and bit or doing the biting. Werewolves played rougher than humans for sure.
Waving a hand at Riley I said, "Fine. I won't tell Bobby. So spill."
"I heard the stories decades ago about this area. Nobody had passed on the exact location other than in the Michigan-Canada territory." He started slowly looking off in the distance as if pulling the words from a screen playing in his mind. I knew better than to interrupt. He wasn't looking for comments and I didn't want to break his concentration.
"The werewolf who passed on this story spoke of a treaty that was older than his pack remembered. He wasn't from this area but the Upper New York territory. His pack was loosely associated with the werewolves from here. He'd come out West to conduct business and with the bonfire welcome and the running with all my pack mates he spoke of more than just his own history. Gordon, yes, that was his name." Again I had the idea that Riley was watching an old movie in his thoughts dragging out the important parts as he formed his words. I also could feel he was editing out things he thought I either didn't need to know or he wasn't allowed to share.
"Gordon was older than I by many moons. You probably noticed we don't age quite as fast as humans," I was surprised that he admitted as much to me, but caught his gaze as he met my eyes and he seemed to be amused by something. As I hadn't said a word I just shrugged and waited. He smirked as though I'd confirmed something aloud and nodded. He took his eyes off me and he again was staring off in the distance.
"His history was long and he had been tasked with travelling often for his pack. To do so he often crossed through Canada and down through Michigan on his journeys. After a while he became something of an adopted were for the locals and in time they shared more and more of their own pack stories." I was puzzled and Riley must have caught my jerk of my head as I literally bit my tongue to keep from speaking.
Again he was amused and said, "What? Cat got your tongue?"
A gleam in his eyes let me know he could smell the coppery burst of blood in my mouth. I swallowed and said, "No. But ..." I trailed off, not quite knowing how to ask my question without sounding nosy and a bit quarrelsome. I tended to skate on thin ice when I asked too many questions and I didn't want to irritate Riley and stop him from telling the stories.
"Oh," he was grinning widely, "Emma, you actually thought werewolves tell their entire histories every time they meet?"
With wide eyes I nodded and said, "Sure sounded like that from what you said earlier."
Outright laughing now, Riley said, "We'd be sitting by bonfires for decades if that was the case. We pick and choose what we disclose and to what werewolves. Yes, it's an oral history but not everyone knows every story told. Besides we tend to argue and fight more than most folks realize and too much shared can get one killed." His laughter had dropped off as something he said obviously triggered a painful and possibly rather personal memory.
He physically shook himself and returned to his story without being prompted.
"The night had been good and long. We had hunted well and enjoyed good stories and fine bonds of friendship. Gordon had been quiet for about an hour and some of the younger weres had wandered off to their own games. I didn't think much of it at the time but now realize it was on purpose. The werewolf wanted to share something that could prove problematic if in the wrong hands." Riley paused and took a deep breath.
"That was when he began talking about the caves beneath the surface and the creatures being kept. He talked about rogue werewolves that had lost their humanity and were caged like animals in a zoo. They couldn't shift to anything but the core creature, and some had become trapped between shapes and cried until they fell asleep. Another corridor of hell had the creatures of darkness that were kept in shadows and magically trapped until they perished. But Gordon implied that not all of them died and some were whispered to linger, dying by inches. There was the talk of a dragon that had been hauled down once humanity began flooding the earth with their children. The vast forests and hidden caves had long been destroyed as man reached greedily to anything new. The dragon was a big deal for the pack to have ownership of. That is how they viewed the trapping of this mythical beast. Gordon gloated quite a bit saying they had the creature under a spell and were also able to command the dragon when needed. He had never seen the dragon but was assured that it existed to aid their pack if needed." I knew my eyes must have gone huge because he chuckled.
"Yes, Emma. Really."
Shaking his head he muttered, "You don't think so? You think I am making all this up?" Again he ran his fingers through his hair obviously frustrated by me.
Softly I said, "No, I don't. I think that's more a reason I need to go there. You have told me I can find answers."
He growled. "What the hell do I tell Harry when you get killed huh?"
"Nothing, because I won't get killed. Worst that will happen is I will find nothing but shadows and dead mules." That was icky to me but from everything I'd read it was more than likely the only creature I would find in the salt tunnels.
"Fine, it seems like you have made up your mind already. Is there nothing I can tell you to convince you of how bad this idea is?" For all of his anger it was clear to me that Riley had been listening.
"So far nothing you've said is too bad. Anything down there is contained from the sounds of things. I will pop into a section near the journal's notes and be out before you can even worry." I pretty much couldn't resist the idea of stumbling upon a dragon, but I seriously doubted that would have been left there once they all abandoned the mines.
"Give me at least half a day to see if I can prove to you that there is something more than dead mules and dust down there. Okay?" He was actually pleading.
I was musing over what he'd said and I quickly seized upon his solution.
"Way cool! You are going to go see the local pack huh?" I grinned as he winced.
"You are leaving me no choice. I have to go throat-first during a blizzard to the leader's den and hope I don't get my neck ripped open for your stubbornness. Once I have paid my price I can ask if they are still associated with the keeper. For your sake I hope so." He looked grim.
"I hope for your sake you aren't an ass and get your neck ripped open. I mean, Riley, I didn't ask you to come here." I quickly said seeing his anger gnawing just behind his worry.
My curiously was nibbling at me but I didn't want to dump anything more on the werewolf. He wasn't happy but he was going to try.
"Promise me you will wait for me to come back." He glared at me.
"Ah, what if you don't?" Reluctantly I asked.
"Then get your ass home fast because if I'm not back in twelve hours I'll be dead or as good as dead." I nodded solemnly; I guessed I'd stay for at least that much time. Riley grunted and tossed the blanket back to me saying, "Now's as good a time as any. Don't open the door to anyone but me." With that he grabbed his coat and left me to the cold, dark house.