Riley laughed and said, "Well, it certainly is getting crowded in here, isn't it, Emma?"
He seemed to know there was more to meets the eye than the werewolves and the dragon in the large salt corridor. I felt like there were at least a dozen more souls watching and waiting, but only had my sense of something to fall back on. Parrot had a wisp-o-willow presence that I thought I was the only one to see until Sapphire spoke up as she dipped her huge face towards the dead orange creature and asked Parrot, "Are you sharing?"
Parrot nodded its head and Sapphire's maw opened up and devoured the bottom half of the seven-limbed creature with a single crunch. I saw Gordon flinch at the noise. He didn't meet my eyes, but instead looked off in the distance as if he was expecting company.
I didn't blame him. With all the small bones and the purple scales there were some rather disturbing noises, not to mention the fact Sapphire chewed with her mouth open. Not pretty. A blender of teeth and fury made short work of the body and Parrot flew off and let Sapphire have the rest of the bits and pieces. Sapphire didn't slow in her consumption, and soon the floor was bare everything but some odd-looking stains.
"Hey, what if I wanted a souvenir?" Riley couldn't resist quipping.
"Sucks to be you," I answered while edging away from the werewolf who was slowly shifting back to his human shape.
Riley's fur seemed to simply dissolve into him and he wasn't bleeding anywhere that I could see, but there was blood on his clothing that was red, not purple or green, or any exotic color that could have come from other prisoners in the tunnels. That didn't mean that he hadn't been hurt, just that I couldn't see any damage. Werewolves healed faster when furred, but still there could be broken parts like ribs and smaller bones that took a while longer to heal. And I wasn't going to poke him to find out where he hurt. The werewolves were still slightly animated from whatever they'd fought in the tunnels besides that weird orange creature that had followed Riley.
Gordon slapped Riley roughly on the back and laughed at Kirk, "What is it with these West Coast weres? It seems like they always want to take something back home to show the pack."
Stefan the Gatekeeper was working at keeping his cool. I'd disturbed him with my pointed questions, and I figured the ghosts or spirits of the evil creatures thumping inside his brain weren't adding much to the sanity dance he was carefully trying to maintain. He was beyond scary to me. I knew soul deep that he wasn't the same creature the werewolves had shut inside when they closed up the mine a few decades ago. He was otherly in a really bad way. He was causing me to be afraid, not the dragon or whatever it was that Parrot was.
My fear wasn't like the kind of terror seen on the big screen. It was the kind like the small things that truly worked at one's soul. Bumps in the middle of the night that woke me from a sound sleep. The crash of the garbage cans being dumped during the pre-dawn hours before the city came to collect them. I would find myself wondering if it was someone digging through my debris trying to find a way inside my world? Or something worse? Or just a homeless creature looking for food in my discarded waste and cursing me for not having anything but cantaloupe rinds and coffee grounds in an environmentally correct brown filter?
Those were the tidbits that worked in my mind during the early o'dark hours when something crashed, boomed or bashed outside the safety of my home. The sounds knocking me wide awake out of a dream that was usually a rather graphic nightmare; the dream hangover challenging what it was I thought that I'd heard alongside the darker part of my non-waking moments; that second of a heartbeat where I wasn't quite sure what was going on, but knew by the fast racing of my heart that it wasn't good. Stefan was causing me to feel that same kind of edginess that would spell long sleepless nights once I escaped from the mines.
I realize that not everyone has nightmares drenched in blood and body parts, but that's not the case for me. I knew at an early age that the night was darker than the day, and not just in light. As a teenager, my dreams were usually the rundown of some horrific things I'd seen or heard whispers about in the corners of Uncle Harry's world. Once I became aware of the otherly ones, I knew pretty much anything could exist. Hell, all I had to do was look around the area where Uncle Harry lived and I could see more than a few oddities that weren't simply waved away upon waking. I was constantly living inside a layer of hell as of yet unnamed.
All of which frequently fed my nightmares. Fear slipped through the cracks in the window panes and doors that weren't properly sealed. It crept into my waking moments, my nightmares causing me to question what was up and what was down. Sadly, it wasn't something rationalized away, but needed to be faced, challenged and eventually conquered -- pretty much the only option if I planned on surviving. I also recognized that not everyone survives such events. Some people fracture and become traces of themselves, while others bully those weaker than they in order to find a warped sort of justice. There are those that actually rise above their horrific beginnings and become functioning members of society, but from what I'd seen and experienced they were far and few in between.
The abused become abusers in the imperfect world in which we live. Fathers fail to understand that the weakness of their own character can cripple their offspring, and mothers don't always understand that nurturing isn't teaching your kids how to fetch an ashtray and a shot when their flavor of the night shows up for some noisy entertainment. Having kids self-sufficient by the age seven isn't something to be bragged. Children need time to be children in order to grow and become responsible adults. Working to attain goals is a good thing ... working to escape is sad. Kids raised badly ended up broken in more than just physical ways.
Weird, but me fear was exhausting me; it was nearly impossible to stay terrified, because the body actually could only stay in a state of panic for only so long. The adrenaline rush of the fear and the heart pounding from the increased stress only lasted so long and then everyone pretty much crashed and burned. Shaking my head, I concluded that something was drastically wrong with me.
My dark thoughts and fears were unusual. It took me a minute to shake off the feeling of being shadowed. It was then I caught Stefan's gaze, and those alien red eyes flickered from his features, and I recognized that I'd been spoon-fed that little taste of horror and fear by whatever was inside Stefan. And at the same time, my fears and reactions were feeding the Gatekeeper. I shoved my thoughts to a lovely spring basket, and mentally painted in some unicorns and ponies. Stefan shuddered and dropped his eyes. I was happy to no longer be the focus of his immediate attention, but warily I edged back closer to Riley.
Sapphire belched with a lick of flames on the edges. Gordon jumped slightly and said, "Excuse me."
She blinked slowly and asked, "Why?"
The conversation on manners stalled for the werewolf. I watched him work through the options and I saw that he wanted to speak out. I shook my head slightly, and thankfully, he reconsidered the idea of educating a creature that could and would devour anything in her path. Without another word, Gordon shrugged while moving slightly away from her. Kirk on the other hand wasn't so smart. He stood directly looking at the puddle of goo that remained from Parrot and Sapphire's snack. Parrot had perched off to the side, allowing the dragon to be wedged further into the tunnel.
Sapphire asked Kirk, "Why did you come inside here?"
Given that Kirk Burnell was the alpha and the head of both Michigan and Canadian werewolves in the area, I could see why she asked him that. It wasn't something that most of his stature usually would do. At least what I knew from Uncle Harry's werewolves. The ones at the top tended to stay that way by sending their second- and third-in-commands into the danger zones. I looked at him carefully and noticed that his face was still very furry -- more so than earlier when I'd first met him -- giving me pause to reflect that he probably hadn't fully flipped back to the human side. His beard and mustache looked double their size and I could see his jacket also had some blood spatters and tears. He looked carefully at Sapphire and replied, "Because I was asked to help."
A cough and a bit more fire from Sapphire, then she said, "So was I. You seem to be chasing your tail more than helping."
He looked nonplussed by the visual of him chasing his tail. That would be some sort of insult in the werewolf world. I kept my thoughts buried and waited to see what Sapphire was trying to do. Stefan was fondling his staff and I felt a weird tug from it. I didn't want to bop him with his own stick, but if he kept acting strange that was going to happen sooner than later.
Sapphire dipped her head closer to Kirk and inhaled deeply.
"You smell of the mines. You killed many?"
He cautiously nodded, obviously not sure which answer would keep him from being flambéed by the dragon.
"Good." That question solved, Sapphire turned her head to the Gatekeeper and snorted.
"Stefan, you take yourself far too seriously now. What happened to the friend of werewolves? Why did you allow these three to go without warning?"
I wondered what sort of warning Stefan could have given. I pictured what I'd seen, and knew perfectly well that we'd been warned it wasn't exactly a walk on the beach down in the mines. We were warned by a fey creature who I found less than honest, but nevertheless nobody could say we hadn't been told to skip the mines. Why was the dragon asking the question? She herself liked it down in this prison better than topside; though it was scary here, she preferred it to the humans above ground. Her cage was escapable, but she was happy in her corner of the prison with her pretty baubles and jewelry. (Not to mention some seriously impressive weapons.)
Stefan puffed up his chest and rumbled out with, "They were having fun. I can't control everything down here."
Parrot snorted but only Sapphire and I seemed to hear the sound. Kirk instead said, "But Gatekeeper, that is your job."
Gordon chimed in, "Yes, Stefan, you are to maintain order and keep the creatures inside. Are you no longer up to the challenge?"
Lashing out physically with the staff Stefan snarled, "I have. You have no idea what goes on down here."
Sapphire said, "I do," shutting him up. He turned his staff towards her as if ready to zap her into next year. Seeing the movement, Parrot flew from the wall and slammed into Stefan with talons and hooked beak. I shut my mouth and waited.
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