The mine wasn't warm by any means. Anyone who's ever gone down into caves realizes once travelling outside the immediate entrance there is a change in the air. I've been in many caves, caverns and holes in the earth to know once I was deep enough or far enough in the tunnels, that there was this shift in the smells and temperature. Cool, if stale at times, the scent of the air was the mark when I was well inside the space. Yet there was a chill the salt mines had that was something beyond the usual environment. Normally I'd put that down to the salt leaching out all the moisture -- a fact readily in evidence by the mummified donkeys I'd seen -- but now it also seemed cooler. The magic that was enchanted into the doorways and walkways added a layer of moreness to the landscape. And after hearing Uncle Harry's revelation that we were being transported between alternate universes as we crossed beneath Michigan, I wondered if the other worlds had other types of caves.
"What's wrong Emma?" Uncle Harry asked while Riley rolled his eyes at me slightly mockingly.
"Okay, I get why I can't simply phase out and around here. That could spell death eventually if I was stuck somewhere else than Earth." I hadn't wanted to ask any questions, but Uncle Harry seemed to sense my confusion. That notion alone was disturbing, but when I added in the presence of all the creatures stored inside the salt mine-slash-prison, I had some things to work out quickly if I wanted to find my corner of the universe again.
Here I trailed off and tilted my head, thinking of how to ask a question without seeming stupid. Riley was getting on my nerves because he really didn't care about my questions but wanted to get out and back up top. I felt his anxiety building up slowly as we passed more cells that were surely occupied from the sounds of rustling, clicking and murmuring. More and more of the prisoners' chambers had no visible exits. They had been walled in, and the magic runes and words carved around and into the walls and doors were in languages other than English, I saw from my quick glances.
"Yes, Magpie?" Uncle Harry was being patient and trying to distract me from a sound of violence strumming along up ahead. I knew he was tensing up, expecting something and Riley had already started to get more feral. Great idea, ask questions of the wild werewolf and my over-protective vampire while still not anywhere in my known universe. Biting back a sigh, I tossed out, "Can Stefan send something after us?"
It was a real fear for me. I'd seen the madness and cruelty in the Gatekeeper's eyes and I felt tainted by whatever had eaten away the werewolf's control. I knew that Uncle Harry had some plan to get me out, but I wasn't so sure that the creatures in the mine were ready or willing to let us flee.
"I won't lie to you. He can and probably will try but I don't think they will let him have his staff back or allow him any contact with any other creatures. For him to harness enough power to reach us, he would need a strong talisman or to drain dry another powerful werewolf. The ones with him will kill him rather than let him harm us. They came down here to deal with Stefan however is needed. If any of us are injured or killed, they have been warned the hell that will descend down on them will be decidedly final and the true end for all of their werewolves." Uncle Harry said it calmly but Riley stiffened and I could feel the heat flowing off his body. He knew Uncle Harry wasn't exaggerating but promising something to me.
I said, "Thank you."
And with that I shut my mouth tightly to avoid further aggravating Riley. I could see that he wasn't thrilled by the promise that Uncle Harry had given me, but I didn't much care. I was filled with a sense of calmness and peace. Also a small bit of guilt for getting everyone into this mess ... but I couldn't change the past, only my present. The lights dimmed briefly even while I was walking directly beneath a rather large light that was closer to our heads than usual. The tunnel had tightened and wasn't nearly as huge as the previous areas I'd traveled through during the past few hours.
Riley pushed his hands to his ears and roared. His face was tilted up to the ceiling and his throat was roped with a relief of veins as he flexed to keep his human form. Even I could see he was close to losing it and flipping to his furry side.
I stopped and looked at Uncle Harry with my eyes wide.
Uncle Harry said softly, "It seems that Stefan just tried to grab the staff from Gordon, and he was put down." I didn't question how Uncle Harry knew it, but was sure that if I decided to be so stupid as to go back to the cave area were we'd left the werewolves, I would find rather harsh proof of what he'd said.
Riley shook his head and said, "Sorry." He didn't sound like he much meant it but I wasn't going to say a word. His features were tight and his eyes flickering around as if we were caged and he was seeking an escape. The silver-lined walls and doorways didn't seem to affect him as he slammed his right fist into one of the portals that actually had a doorknob.
The door cracked open with a loud bang as the hinges flew off into the corridor clanking at my feet.
"Oh shit!" Riley exclaimed automatically as it quickly dawned on him that the cell could possibly have a prisoner ready to spring out and try to kill us. Nothing poked its face or claws out, but still I was strangely drawn to see what was inside.
I ignored Riley's hiss of breath as I pushed inside to see a long corridor of salt, not a room like I was expecting. There were carvings in the walls but nothing I recognized immediately. I wandered it closely followed by Uncle Harry and Riley. Once we were a dozen or so feet inside the cell there was another door. This one was inlaid with pieces of stones and semi-precious rounded stones giving me the impression of centuries of time. There wasn't a lock, just a worn spot, obviously used by others frequently in the past to push open the door and go inside the room. So I did.
I was stunned by what I discovered inside the room. Inside there were figures that took me a second to comprehend, as they were so lifelike, yet white. The carvings had shadows and lines that gave the pure white salt dimensions and textures. Someone had carved pillars and statues from the salt in the mines painstakingly and thoroughly over years at the very least. At the far end of the room was a carved salt altar. On top of it was a block of wood. I walked through the shapes in my path and reaching the altar, peered carefully at the box centered on the surface. It was an ossuary. Ignoring my friends, I examined the closed box, curious what was being worshipped in the prison.
The ossuary wasn't made of an expensive hunk of wood like most curators tended to brag about in their sales catalogs -- I'd used such catalogs over the years to get an idea of the price of my beauties I found in my wanderings. But I noticed that it wasn't pine either, and truthfully it wasn't much more than a resting place. The cube was just large enough for the bones of a human leg or two, not much more. It was a tight space and the bones were carefully stacked inside, with the skull on top grinning up at me when I cautiously lifted the lid. Unlike the stacks of bones and death I'd seen in other ossuaries, this was controlled, confined and dead. There wasn't any haunting feeling of a spirit hanging around to protest the spot.
In Austria I'd been beneath the city in the catacombs and seen rooms after rooms filled with stacked skulls and bones. It was an artful display that went on and on as you walked through the area. They were haunting and memorable, and not to be confused with what was in the slats of hardwood box I was looking into. During my life I'd noticed that there was almost a otherly remoteness to such places like the catacombs of Austria that wasn't like what I'd found in temples and archeological sites. The humans were long dead and mostly forgotten and had become pieces of artwork. The creatures that had rested in this cell weren't human in construction. My eyes had passingly noticed extra features on the salt-carved statues that I refused to try to name. I was pretty sure that the box had one of those kind inside -- not human.
Uncle Harry came to my side and took the lid from my hands.
"Emma, this is not good. The creatures here worship whatever these are and you can't disturb their space." He wasn't being cruel, he was just telling me honestly his thoughts.
"I know, but I had to see." I couldn't explain the tug of compassion I had. I knew it was absurd considering everything that happened down here but still I was saddened by the creature's death.
Riley sniffed the air and said, "Let's go, Emma."
Uncle Harry put the lid carefully back on top and led me out.
Trying to give words to my feeling, I said, "That was a child of some of the creatures. This place is sacred and yet not haunted. There's joy in the walls and the statues."
They both nodded yet led me out. We'd found a place of hope between the worlds. That humbled me. I walked out, slowly wondering if this was a twist in time we were seeing or something from another world. Quietly I followed as Uncle Harry steered me towards a new tunnel. Not allowing myself a glance back, I wondered how it was that Riley had selected that particular spot to break a door. Something was working on the side of good down in the mines, I knew that now. It made me feel decent to know that not all was lost in the prison.
The rumblings and grumblings of violence I'd heard a few minutes before had stopped. While I continued in the direction we'd been heading I noticed that the lights were brighter while the walls along the corridor were old. They had been chiseled out with hand tools, not big industrial machines that simply clawed out the salt. There were marks along the way that showed a hand had been wielding the iron in a somewhat rhythmic motion. Looking at Uncle Harry I whispered, "We moved to a different place. I can't hear that creature anymore."
"Yes, and we need to move a bit quickly now to the next section of the mine."
I was still expecting to find we had looped back upon our trail, and the dead corpses would be just around the next twist on our path. Instead I sucked in a deep gulp of air as we turned to see ahead a huge stalagmite and stalactite filled space. There was a liquid lake that was clear, and I could see there wasn't a single fish or animal in what I hoped was water.