The Gatekeeper dropped the spell and the silver light that had been sizzling the creature on the other side of the door abruptly disappeared. My eyes were still illuminated from the bright silver light that had come from the staff the Gatekeeper carried. The three werewolves were covering their eyes and cursing softly.
"Shoot, warn a person next time, will ya?" Riley cursed and shook his head. I know that the flash was still burned into my retinas so I figured that the silver content to the spell the Gatekeeper cast add a punch of pain for the werewolves that I didn't feel.
Kirk laughed and said, "Stefan, I am glad to see you haven't lost your touch."
So Kirk personally knew the Gatekeeper. Again adding to my earlier conclusion that Kirk was very old. From what I'd understood good old Stefan here had been left down in the mines until he died or all of his prisoners perished. I was a bit relieved that they hadn't left him without some weapons in his arsenal. Gordon had been vague about the state of the Gatekeeper, but it seemed possible now that he didn't know too much more before we'd arrived. Anything Star would have told them was suspect in my book, and hopefully now they were as skeptical as I had been of the dead Fey creature.
Stefan the Gatekeeper smiled at me and I felt like I'd been hugged by a gentle spirit. Not that he was anything like that, but he certainly had more than his fair share of charisma. Then I felt his touch mentally. I shoved him brutally out of my mind and watched his eyes flare open at my automatic rebuffing of his invasion.
"You really aren't like any other creature I've ever met, Miss Esmeralda Meredith."
That simple declarative sentence dashed my hopes that they'd had one who was like me before and who later died down here. Sapphire had said that there had been one of my kind, who'd visited her in the past, but Stefan was the Gatekeeper of the creatures stuck down here to rot. He'd know what he was talking about when it came to prisoners. My shoulders dropped, and Riley stepped towards me as if to console me -- then jumped back at the look in my eyes. Unconsciously my right hand had lifted the silver blade as if to ward off the touch. I figured the pain was etched on my face as well. Gordon grabbed Riley's shoulder and said, "Let it be. Allow her a minute."
I gave Gordon a shaky smile and forced myself to lower the sword. The light in the tunnel caught in the scrolling cursive script. Looking at Stefan, I asked softly, "What about the man who owned this?"
Tilting the flat side of the blade towards Stefan, I showed him the engraving, 'Domenico Rosso' and beneath the name, further etched with Il faut du sang, the lovely words in French for 'There must be blood.'
Stefan chuckled and said, "Nico's blade, yes he was here. But he wasn't like you. He was an extremely talented thief with the ability to disappear at will. He made the mistake of stealing from the wrong sort, and was caught by not disappearing mid-thrust into one of the Vampire Council's flavors of the night women. The vampire had a fine stable of humans and nonhuman creatures he brutalized nightly. Nico found another use for them. He was trapped by a few angry minion of the vampire and then subsequently sentenced to life down here. For a while he was able to slip in and out at will, but when a new group of spell-casters did a head count one night, he wasn't there. They found him missing a personal affront to their power and their sentencing, so once they found him they walled him into his cell to spend the remainder of his days."
Horrified at the thought they'd literally starved a creature to death, I knew perfectly well that I had paled noticeably; then Stefan added, "He was fed through a slot in the wall but his inability to steal and disappear whenever he wanted robbed him of the will to live. Before he passed I asked him if there was anything I could do for him -- a final wish as it were -- and he just laughed and told me to enjoy my life, after all, he had."
Ruefully shaking his head Stefan added, "He was an amazing creature. But Esmeralda, I am not going to lie to you. He wasn't a creature like you. Part of being a Gatekeeper is that I have access to many records and descriptions of the supernatural world, and the denizens of all manner of creatures that exist. I am sorry to tell you that there are only rumors of your kind. I have never had the pleasure until now."
Looking at the three werewolves he said, "And you know that she has a bounty on her head?"
Riley grinned and said, "Yup. Since she turned sixteen and she wasn't captured or killed by others, she has been on the most wanted list, dead or alive, for supernatural creatures -- the emphasis on the dead most weeks."
Sheepishly I shrugged and said, "Nothing new. And how do you know about that?"
If he knew I figured I had nothing to lose by asking. He was certainly powerful enough to toss me in a cell and collect the reward if that was something he wanted to do. Instead he grinned again and said, "I may be a thousand feet below Michigan but it isn't like I don't have the Internet."
Again I had to close my mouth. I hadn't even thought that the Gatekeeper would have a computer, much less access to the modern highway everyone traveled. It just goes to show that I had assumed facts that weren't. Just because he'd been shut in with his inmates, it sure seemed that he hadn't been forgotten by those who'd put him here. Gordon looked pretty surprised by Stefan's revelation and asked, "You are connected to the outside, and you never bothered to contact any of us?"
Stefan laughed and said, "Well, I didn't exactly figure on having any visitors, of course. Besides, Gordon, I didn't expect to ever see anyone I knew again unless they were sent down for me to keep."
"Okay, this may sound like a really stupid question but didn't they seal you in to run the 'fun house' until you all perished?" I felt obligated to ask.
Smiling Stefan said, "That was the original idea, but there weren't a ton of spare areas for them to warehouse their undesirables. After a few years a portal was opened up, much like the one Star opened for you, and one of the reigning council members came down to offer me a reprieve as it were. They figured that since I'd survived the initial few years without dying, I probably could handle a few more with some help. They set up communication -- back in the day it was really bad -- and as humanity did upgrades I got them also. Every now and then a new creature would be shipped down for me to handle."
We all nodded like we understood, but I was still confused.
"Why would you help them? They abandoned you and left you to die. What possible reason could you have to help them?" I had to ask.
He chuckled and said, "Ah, Esmeralda, I am good at my job, and every time one of the prisoners dies, some of their life force flows and goes into me. It wasn't supposed to happen that way, but it does."
We all looked at him, stunned. The fact that he'd been down here sucking in energy for decades meant he was probably stronger than all of us combined. He seemed very relaxed about it, and Kirk finally said, "That sounds like a hell of a job perk."
They all laughed like it was a huge joke, while I kept my lips shut. From what I had been told, the worst of the worst was what had been sealed in with him. That he'd collected even a bit of their power was truly scary. The werewolves clapped each other on the back while Stefan stayed a bit apart from them. He caught my eye and nodded slightly, as if giving me approval not to giggle. He tried again to push into my thoughts, but from a different spot -- not through my mind, but instead he was pushing into my chest as if trying to reach my heart and soul. I shoved back with a rather lovely memory of the car accident that took my foster parents' lives. His head jerked back and his eyes flashed for a second, then he nodded and sketched me a very slight bow. I guess he really hadn't met anyone like me before. Wistfully I thanked Uncle Harry in my heart for teaching me how to survive various mental attacks.
"Well, Esmeralda, I am happy you came down to visit. I've read about your exploits over the years and you really have pissed off some major players." Stefan smiled at me.
"Ah, thanks?" I didn't know where he was going.
He laughed and said, "You don't know there's a fan page out there rooting for you?"
Riley spoke before I did and said, "What???? Emma has fans?"
Stefan said, "She does. There are many lesser supernatural creatures that feel abandoned and lost so they feel empathy for her. And at times they report when they've seen her, a month or so after she has been spotted."
My throat closed for a second and I focused on my active breathing while trying to keep anchored in the tunnel and not pop out of sight. Riley looked like Stefan had struck him with a hammer in the middle of his forehead. He gasped out, "She has a following on what -- fucking Twitter?"
The Gatekeeper looked down his nose at Riley and said, "Actually, yes, and various underground sites."
I was still wrestling with the notion that I'd been seen by other supernaturals and admired. That they were protecting me was also an odd feeling. It made me feel like I was living in a fishbowl, while I'd been thinking I had been slipping under the radar all these years.
The evil creature in the cell decided to chime in with, "I'll turn you in for the bounty once I get out."
Stefan walked to the cell on the right side of the tunnel and looking into the small silver laced cell said, "Enough. You have overstepped. I believe you really would try to collect the bounty if you could. I can't allow that."
Then he raised his staff and bent his head, murmuring some ancient language. It wasn't Latin or any of the romance languages I knew but otherly. There was a beat of silence, then his staff began to glow with energy in a silver-white flash that nearly exploded outwards. The lightning from the tip of his rod went through the small opening and filled the chamber with an audible sizzle, much louder than before and with more focus. A scream was strangled no sooner than it came from the creature's throat. The weres all dipped their heads and avoided the blinding shot of energy that rolled over the chamber and out towards the cell. The scent of barbecue filled the tunnel and then was followed by a foul burnt odor. I guessed that the now-fried inmate wouldn't be collecting my bounty any time soon.
Kirk looked over at Stefan and said, "Thank you. Esmeralda has had some hurdles to overcome. So now that she knows the prisoner wasn't one of her kind, do you know of any existing like her? "
I was stunned that a werewolf who'd just met me a few hours ago would be so thoughtful. I kept quiet and waited to see what the Gatekeeper would say. The whole trip had been eye-opening to say the least.
Stefan began walking away and we naturally all followed. It wasn't a pathway that I'd tagged so I grabbed my spray can out of my backpack and automatically marked our trail. Nobody objected so I continued while the Gatekeeper kept going further into the salt mines. There were less and less sparkles of silver lacing the walls, but the lights kept pace with us. The illumination was magically fueled, and I'd figured out that it was draining us while we walked. I couldn't stop it so I just hung back and let the werewolves take the lead, hoping they'd be giving more juice to the walls than I was.