Consciously and subconsciously I kept one ear tuned for Riley's plaintive, "Esmeralda, where are you? Emma, you there?" Or even Uncle Harry's more direct approach into my thoughts with, "Magpie, what are you looking that is so bright and shiny?"
Neither of the supernatural creatures were able to break the walls of whatever magic imprisoned the seen and unseen occupants of the cells that were riddled through the salt mines like holes in Swiss cheese. Once the door had slammed behind me, separating me from the three werewolves, all bets were off. I no longer had a link to my vampire mentor, Uncle Harry. I had been holding on to the idea that there was going to be an answer to my life in the salt mines that were a thousand feet beneath Michigan all because of stuff I'd read in a few journals and newspapers. Now I wasn't so sure, but there wasn't much more I could do but keep heading into the mine. I had roughly a half an hour before I must turn back to try to get back through the portal of the fey creature who hated me and who promised that she'd hold the gate open. Yeah, I know, not a great plan, but it was what I had for now.
The walls continued to illuminate my path and there weren't any more forks in the road. I quickened my steps and the magic-laced salt walls brightened in response to my nearly running pace. I didn't want to miss the chance to find any clues to my life and possibly my kind. I wanted to belong. Not that I didn't love Uncle Harry but he was, after all, a major vampire, probably a Master if not more for all I knew -- vampires didn't share their politics. Even Riley had his own pack, and as I'd recently found out, relationships with other packs. All I had was 'what ifs' and various friends of Uncle Harry who humored me. This was my chance at finding others like me. Belonging to something larger than me -- a family as it were -- something I barely remembered having. My adopted parents were long dead; and they hadn't been my real parents but they'd been well-meaning and fair. I well knew that life wasn't fair in any manner. But I felt I deserved a chance at it.
Suddenly the path stopped. I came to a huge doorway that had a bar on the outside. Whatever was inside wasn't able to come into the tunnel unless released -- I knew that without having to ask anyone. It was daunting and yet at the same time I felt calm. Time was slipping away from me, but I didn't think I had much choice. Mentally I braced myself for whatever was behind the door. I knew that I hadn't found my past but something behind the door was waiting. Patiently.
To my utter disbelief, there was a huge cavern inside that seemed to go on and on. I stepped inside the room, dazzled by all the bright and shiny objects. My hope for finding my past was erased in my immediate thoughts at seeing the amazing amount of wealth lining every visible surface. Once my eyes regained their focus, I saw in the middle of the room -- a dragon. I cleared the threshold and the door thumped closed behind me.
I'd heard about dragons in my life, from Uncle Harry and others. I hadn't realized that the werewolves had imprisoned one in the salt cavern beneath Michigan. Then something rang into my head. It wasn't anyone tapping into me, but a gut feeling. There was something in the dragon lair's treasures that I needed.
Once I was closed inside the room, another thought to came to me. Suffering didn't need to happen as a rule. Humans tended to pull at the strings of dragons without a single thought as to what could be the harm. I knew from various stories and tales that dragons came in all sizes and all sorts of temperaments, and were fond of bright and shiny objects nearly as much as I was. This particular dragon wasn't extremely huge or even scary-looking, all things considered. Except for those rather raggedy-looking teeth that were longer than my forearm. The mouth was filled with more teeth than I cared to count. Plus there were the added accents of remnants of the last meal or twenty gnawed from the bones of whatever fell afoul of the beast. I saw at least one hunk of raw sinewy arm that looked suspiciously like it had come from a human being, or at least something that appeared to be human. (I knew not every creature that appeared to be a 'normal' human was -- hell, I was a living and breathing example of that and didn't much care to join whatever the dragon had devoured any time soon.)
I cautiously backed away from the largest gem in the room that was between Dragon and myself and said softly, "There is plenty to share." I wasn't claiming ownership, but simply trying to establish a communication with the large creature. That I assumed the creature spoke English was fairly self-involved, but it was what I knew and besides, I was shut inside the cavern without any escape that didn't involve me trying to pop through the salt and earth -- so I had to suck up some power and make the dragon respect me, not consider me possible dragon chow.
Okay, maybe not my smartest comment but it was true. The interior of the damn cavern was covered with semi-precious stones and chunks of gold and silver that accented the spiraling designs and the horrific depiction of the death and destruction of an entire race. The etched figures seemed to be humanoid, but with the longer hands and faces, I thought perhaps a bit of the fey had mixed into the locals before the fall. Maybe that was the source of nibbles and bits currently decorating the dragon's teeth. The scales around its chest were also equally spattered with something it had partially digested. But to my queasy glance, I saw the rust-colored blood stains of human mixed with a thicker purple-blue shade that I had seen before in my life. That creature wasn't one easily slain, and that caused me a bit of concern. After all, that meant the dragon had snacked on a supernatural creature fairly recently as the blood was still wet in appearance. I bit back the bile that threatened to choke me a bit.
The dragon's teeth were gaped slightly open and the mostly dirt-colored beast inhaled strongly. The dragon exhaled and it was scented with carrion and decaying morsels of the last supernatural meal. I knew perfectly well that this treasure room wasn't the dragon's to begin with, but a long forgotten monster's lair that it had taken for its own once shoved beneath the earth in the salt mine. I wondered how the werewolves and the Gatekeeper had ignored all the bright and shiny bits when it dawned on me that they hadn't, but they probably used it to tempt the dragon inside before bolting the doorway. The dragon hadn't walked in like me, knowing what was possible in the cavern, but had instead been taken or tempted -- probably decades ago -- probably because it had broken an unwritten rule. The dragon, more than likely, had been tricked and imprisoned for some infraction such as chomping through some other supernatural creatures. I didn't see it being imprisoned for eating the local tourists and humans up in Michigan. The dragon was surrounded by all the lovely and pretty things it could never take with it. The air was musty and heavily scented with a very strong scent of wet dragon and rotting vegetation. I had brought a small hand-held respirator in case the air hadn't been good when I'd first planned to pop into the mines; it was still in my backpack but I didn't bother to use it. When the dragon's claws raked at me -- frozen in place a few yards from the creature -- I saw the huge metal ring biting deeply into the dragon's throat. And even though I could feel the air being sucked out of the chamber by the dragon's soft panting, I saw the huge chain links down its back keeping it from exiting any time soon. From the bones and rotting meat, I concluded that the Dragon was being fed by something down in the mines. And from the glint in its large golden eyes, I knew it hadn't been the dragon's loot; but rather the dragon was protecting the bright and shiny objects until it figured out how to escape its prison.
At that moment I truly wanted to try to pop out, but at the same time, somewhere in the heaps of treasures that littered the scene was possibly the relic or information I needed to find my past. That alone presented a dilemma because if I fled, the next time I came through the doorway I would in fact be purposefully in the dragon's lair -- not just wandering -- and up for grabs literally. There wasn't going to be another opportunity. I really hated these sorts of decisions but I wasn't going to give up just yet. There had to be something I could offer the dragon in exchange for time to delve into a few spots that were calling to me.
"Sorry, forgive me for my rudeness. I am Esmeralda Meredith from California. I came seeking my past and stumbled upon you. Am I being ill-mannered assuming you understand my feeble language?" I sketched a halfway bow and folded my hands in front of me as respectfully as I could.
Uncle Harry would be proud of me trying some sort of diplomacy considering the clock was definitely ticking. The dragon blinked first.
The voice was dry and ancient. No indications if Dragon was male or female. Just old.
"Speak your tongue," the voice hissed with a slithering sound, as if the creature was talking around a rather large forked tongue. Since I wasn't going to examine it for a biological lab report, I just nodded without smiling. This was a chancy moment. I didn't have much time left and I might need the dragon's help, or at least the dragon's respect to keep me from being gobbled up.
"Can you escape if I unbolt your collar and release you from this cavern?" I figured if I was offering something, I could possibly get some help; if not, I was letting the dragon know I wasn't one of its captors.
The golden eyes came closer as the dragon went the length of the hard iron chains to look directly into my face. The scent of rotten meat was strong as the dragon breathed and I could feel my stomach flip-flop and resisted the desire to toss my cookies. Or in my case the energy bar that I'd ingested with some water before walking through the tunnels to this dragon cave. My life really wasn't normal by any yardstick.
"You speak true. You are not human. You are other."
Nice declarative set of sentences. Happy, happy, joy, joy ... a semi-articulate dragon. But I knew better than to be a sarcastic bitch to a creature that could quite easily chomp off a limb if given the opportunity. Letting my breath out slowly, I focused on the said and unsaid and figured out what to say.
"Okay then, so is that a yes or a no? Should I try to unclasp your collar? If I do, will you be able to leave or are you bound to this space?" I could see there actually was an elaborate set of hinges and bolts on the collar that I had the dexterity to unfasten if the dragon allowed and didn't make me a snack. At the same time the dragon would know if it wasn't able to leave. Dragons weren't stupid and from everything I'd heard, they lived long lives by being smarter than the average creatures.
The dragon shook its massive head and admitted, "No, I am bound to this space for at least another century."
I sighed in sympathy and then asked, "Is there anything I can do to help?"
I didn't explain what was possibly coming with the future invasion of more humans but waited to see if there was anything I could do. I doubted it, but at least I offered.
Shaking its huge head again, the dragon said, "No, not-human, it is my sentence to serve."
"Please call me Esmeralda. What am I to call you, Dragon?" I was really working it but the clock was ticking.
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