Riley said, "Emma, freeze. Harry, tell her fast!"
It wasn't so much as a request as a demand. I spun to Uncle Harry and stopped. His face was calm but his eyes danced with words yet to be unleashed. It seemed that again there was something more that needed explaining, and I wasn't going to budge until one of them spilled.
The corpses I'd now been lucky enough to see not just once but twice in the past hour, thankfully weren't twitching or anything. They all appeared to be still very dead and I didn't see anything feasting on them. I had to be happy that we were still in the salt mines, because had we been on top of the earth there would have already been flies laying eggs and vermin eating at the dead. The sight of such small things gnawing off lips and cheeks of whatever supernatural creature they fancied was something I could definitely skip. Not anywhere on my bucket list, that was a fact.
Uncle Harry took half a step towards me, but then something in my stance or on my face caused him to stop and stand still. All I have to say, if you've ever seen a huge animal freeze right before it pounces on its prey, you would only just begin to be able to fathom a tiny bit of how a vampire seems to literally stop time. I could hear my breathing kicked up a notch and I slowed my exhale to let out the tension building in my chest. Riley was breathing a bit faster as if he recognized the challenge I had unwittingly dropped into the blood-filled corridor.
"No, Emma, don't look like that," Uncle Harry was using his 'let's-be-reasonable-voice' that usually prefaced him telling me not to do something. I stiffened my spine and met his eyes with obvious yet unspoken questions in mine. The spark of something was still behind his gaze, but he wasn't trying to push into my mind, for which I was thankful since Riley's mind was positively screaming for me to hear him.
"Riley, enough," Uncle Harry said with a command in his voice. Riley wilted a bit and I felt his mental push recede.
"I told you the prison was designed to keep supernatural creatures from escaping, right?" Again he used the reasonable voice.
"Pretty much a given," I said back without giving an inch of my own.
"We have looped back to the backside of where the werewolves were ambushed, that's true." A slight pause from him as if he was waiting for me to explode. A few years ago he would have been rewarded with my pitching a fit or popping out of phase to somewhere far away. I'd stifled that impulse for a few reasons, mostly because I didn't even begin to know where I would go without them -- I was not in a good spot for sure.
I kept from snarling, 'Really?' just to avoid sounding like a brat. I knew perfectly well that Uncle Harry didn't have to explain anything to me when we were trying to flee, but at the same time looping back to the beginning of our escape did seem to need some explanation.
After the silence dragged out for another heartbeat of mine, Uncle Harry breathed in deeply -- mainly for effect since vampires didn't need to breathe in the least and he knew I knew that -- then said, "Time also is different beneath the earth in this prison. The time passes however it is cast by the overseers of the prison."
He paused again waiting to see if I was going to ask or question anything. I did neither and simply outwaited him. We both knew each other well enough that it wasn't really necessary for him to pause with such frequency, so I gathered that he felt the need to stall answering my concerns. That wasn't boding well for what was coming; I knew it in my head and felt it with my soul. There was more at work than just a simple prison system with the inmates running amok inside the supernatural asylum. And I was thinking it was more along the lines of a runaway mental asylum than one with butterflies and pretty posies painted on the walls.
There were creatures caged that went beyond my imagination, letting me know from the screams and shrieks that even worse nightmares were still bricked away from view. There had been slots lining the tunnels that implied that inside the warehouse of damned supers, some weren't ever going to see the silky skies of either night or day anytime, ever again. As if hearing my thoughts -- another possibility I resisted giving energy to since it could be true -- there was an eerie scream of laughter that ended with a wet choking sound.
Riley shuddered and looked at us both and snipped out with, "Harry, spit it out. That sound wasn't too far away and I smell fresh blood."
I looked at Riley and bit back a comment about Uncle Harry's blood affinity. Then it dawned on me that whatever that creature was, possibly approaching, scared the huge werewolf. I pressed my lips tightly together and shrugged to Uncle Harry.
"Emma, we aren't beneath Michigan in the salt mines anymore. During the journey down here we went to an alternate universe, a somewhat parallel one at that. If you pop out to anywhere you may never see anyone again. Your talent here is unknown. That was why I sent Riley with you," he said firmly while waiting to see my reaction. I noticed he flexed his fingers into small fists. He was scared for me.
Taking a second to absorb the absurd claim, I couldn't find any immediate fault with the logic and had more questions than ever. The moment we went through the fey creature's 'doorway' down to this hell hole must have been a barrier between the worlds.
I started at the beginning. "Then why did you let me come here?"
Uncle Harry coughed out a slight chuckle and said, "Emma, you were coming here to see what you could see come hell or high water. Both seem to be currently in our near future."
Riley said, "Fuck no, Harry. Not that damn pond of water out in the corner?"
Uncle Harry laughed and said, "No, but something similar."
"Back up a second. Water in a salt mine? Doesn't that seem pretty counter-productive?" I was reaching but my mind was still running around in tight circles trying to figure out the known and unknown I'd been exposed to in the past few hours.
Uncle Harry answered, "Remember when you went to the beach long ago?"
"Sure, why?" I tried to keep my voice calm while I was mentally twisting in the wind. I had to admit that for the first time in as long as I could remember I was getting frightened.
"You saw things in the ocean, didn't you?"
Like it was time to go down memory lane? I heard another cry from something getting closer and my heart thumped faster. Riley stared at Uncle Harry with an expression of stunned amazement. He obviously agreed with me about shooting the breeze while predators approached, sounding more angry than hungry. But we were also standing next to a pile of dead bodies, so that could certainly figure heavily into the mix.
Nodding, I waited.
"This is hard to explain, Emma. Basically there are weak spots between the worlds that should be guarded, and time and wars have taken out the memory of those areas. The prison is between one of these weak spots, and that's why it's heavily warded with magic and why they keep these creatures here. It's like a waiting room. Various factions are fighting to invade the other side of their worlds, and the prison is a line of defense. At least that was what it was originally created to do. The Gatekeeper was here too long, and became tainted." Uncle Harry looked deeply into my face and said, "We didn't know it had got so utterly out of control. I am sorry."
"Okay, Harry, but how does that get us out of here?" Riley interrupted while positively bristling with energy-laced anger. His werewolf side was getting restless.
Shaking his head Uncle Harry said, "We need to head down this way," he indicated the route I could have sworn we just took.
I kept my mouth shut, thankful that I hadn't taken the fast way out and popped into phase -- and from what Uncle Harry had said, possibly popped out of existence. At least my known existence; that kept me glued to the two like butter on hot toast. No way I'd even risk popping back to Sapphire's cavern, either. I had popped across the cavern, but then it was in a visual range of a known area. There was no guarantee that we were in the same universe as the dragon now, and I wasn't all that into dying on a strange alternate world just yet.
Riley wasn't so cautious or introspective and he bit out, "Harry, going in circles down here in Dante's backyard isn't my idea of a fun way to die."
Uncle Harry smiled with his fangs slightly exposed and said softly, "I can offer a few other alternatives if you would prefer."
The choices were evident in his eyes and on the point of his teeth even to Riley, and he said, "Okay, whatever. Lead on." He grumbled slightly but stopped talking. In fact not a one of us bothered to talk for the next few minutes as we left the bodies behind, and the noises of whatever had been approaching. That helped me relax slightly, because I started to see different prison cells than I'd seen before. These were more elaborately carved into the white walls. Some had steel doors, while others were wood with silver imbedded, along with runes and glyphs etched on the frames. I could smell the magic in the air. Riley kept his body as far away from the silver as inhumanly possible. Uncle Harry didn't seem to react one way or the other to the enchantments or even the silver.
Every now and then there would be a glow of eyes peering through a food slot or a small carved window but none of the creatures made a sound. If I hadn't caught the flat sheen of the eyes I would have figured there was nothing in the cells. One cell caused me to stumble because the eyes staring out were a light cerulean shade, with lashes at least a full inch long. Whatever was watching us pass had to be a good ten feet tall due to how huge the eyes were. There was madness in the intelligent gaze that was remarkably scary to me. Uncle Harry simply put his hand up and the eyes disappeared. I quickened my pace to escape the haunting creature. Whatever its crime, it knew it was going to die down here; I knew without having to risk a peek into its eyes. At the same time, I felt like had I opened the door to free the creature, not only would it not thank me, but more than likely it would simply gobble me whole as if I was a late night snack that had just arrived.
We were going through a longer corridor and I didn't see any signs of cells, but simply the icy white of salt. I asked something that was bothering me. "How do they all get fed?"
Riley coughed out a laugh then looked at me and said, "Why do you care?"
Uncle Harry shook his head at Riley and said, "Some don't. They are suspended in time and are given nothing. Others were fed by the Gatekeeper and a few of his charges."
Continuing to walk I followed up with, "But I didn't see any of Stefan's helpers."
Riley's shoulders shook with stifled laughter while Uncle Harry said, "Because it seems Stefan had begun to devour them while the insanity of this prison fed on his soul."
That was a good enough answer, I concluded while deciding not to ask any more questions. There weren't any cut and dried questions for me and I was tired of amusing Riley with my apparent clueless comments. I wanted to be home, or at least in the blizzard up in Detroit instead of wandering the mines.