Littleton was a fishing town on the Washington coast—seventy-two houses in the several square miles between the highway and the open water. Nearly every job in town dealt with fishing and oysters. There were rumors that strangers disappeared around these parts and that was good enough for me to investigate. I was hunting necromancers—been following up on leads all over the region, but honestly I didn’t expect much.
I hated necromancers—monsters killed some of my friends and wounded my girlfriend. My crew, Black Briar, had battled the cult and wiped out most of them, but a few had escaped.
I pulled the Ducati in front of the Crack Shack, a dive bar and grill that had seen better days. I figured I’d ask a few questions, eat some local food, and poke around for a few hours before heading back home. My hopes were not high. So here I was, all alone with my bike, a couple of hammers, and my magic sword, Gram.
Working for Nidhogg—the dragon that ruled everything between Vancouver, BC, and Vancouver, WA, and as far out east as Missoula, Montana—offered me some perks and an extraordinary amount of backup if I needed it. Right now, I was just scouting. I didn’t expect anything too big to handle. I was Odin’s chosen one after all, a hot, dragon-slaying, berserker chick who understood the business end of her sword.
I stuffed my gloves inside my helmet before climbing off the bike. I left the hammers in my saddle bags, along with the .45 I’d picked up in my adventures. I distrusted firearms, especially when magic was in the area, but it was always good to have an ace in the hole.
Couple of old guys inside the bar were watching me from the window. Their eyes about popped out of their heads when they caught sight of my hair and the sword slung over my shoulder. Or so I assumed. Maybe they were just not used to seeing someone like me in their little town. Not hostile stares, more like the circus was in town.
At least I’d left the chainmail at home. Just my riding leathers. Likely it was the dyke on a bike that was confusing the locals. I smiled, thinking how the love of my life, Katie Cornett, had called me her “fierce warrior” as she lay in that hospital bed, recovering. I took a deep breath, stretching with my arms over my head, and twisted my torso to each side. It had been a long ride.
I could feel eyes on me from places other than the bar as I climbed the three wooden steps and pushed open the door. Once the door closed behind me, the feeling of threat fell away.
The place was really cute, in a fisher town sort of motif. There was a small stage in one corner with a huge wall-mounted television off to one side showing golf. The bar was empty except for a young woman who sat on a stool at the end reading a book. Over her shoulder was a window back into the kitchen. An old woman was moving back there, leaning over a grill. I’d been on the road since four and my stomach was growling.
The two old guys were at one of the four tables over to the right of the entrance. Beyond them was another room with a few tables and stacked boxes and a second exit out to a side parking lot. Somewhere there was a door to the kitchen, because I couldn’t see one out here. I walked across the narrow room and placed my helmet on the bar, nodding to the old men. The young woman slipped a receipt into her book and closed it with a grunt.
She looked up at me as she walked around the end of the bar, picked up a pad of paper, and slid the book she was reading off the edge of the counter and down beneath. I grinned. It was a bodice ripper, but with her piercings and the tatt on the inside of her left wrist, I was betting she would rather project an aura of mystery and chic hipsterism rather than let people think she would enjoy something as frivolous as a romance novel.
“What can I get you?” she asked, her voice cracking on the last word.
I guessed she was barely twenty-one, looked closer to nineteen.
“Breakfast menu and some answers if you don’t mind,” I said back, giving her my best smile.
She blushed a little as she handed me a laminated sheet. Eggs and oysters were the order of the day, it seemed. Of course, there were oysters in everything, even the steak and eggs, which I ordered.
“Gravy on the browns?” I asked.
“Best sausage gravy within a hundred miles,” she said, a shy smile making her eyes look happy.
I let her pour me a cup of black coffee and watched her smirk as I poured about a half a cup of sugar in it.
“Got any chocolate?” I asked.
She smiled and opened a little door behind the bar, pulling out a bottle of chocolate sauce. I added a spoonful to my mug and stirred it, watching the old men trying to watch me without being too obvious about it.
“What brings you out this way?” the young woman asked, slipping my order back to the cook.
I sipped my coffee and shrugged. I’d had worse. “Just following some whispers,” I said. “Got wind that there’s been some trouble out here since New Year’s.”
“You a detective or something?” the girl asked, her voice cracking again.
Was she nervous? I glanced back at the two old men who were diligently shoveling eggs and hash browns into their faces, eye contact a definite no-no. Interesting.
“No, nothing like that,” I said, sipping my coffee and watching the old men. “Just curious about odd things, if you understand.” Was I making them nervous? When I turned back, the girl was watching me, wide-eyed, her mouth open in a little circle like a guppy.
I smiled at her and she blushed.
“Guess you folks don’t see somebody like me around here very often.”
One of the old men grunted and mumbled something under his breath, and the girl winced. I sat my coffee cup down on the counter and folded my hands over it, letting the steam warm them.
“Heard that maybe some people had disappeared out this way. You heard anything?”
The girl busied herself straightening a stack of napkins that were in no need of help. “What did you say your name was?” the girl asked finally, watching me out of the corner of her eye.
“Sarah,” I said, holding my hand out for her to shake. “Sarah Beauhall.”
She sort of twitched, knocking over the napkins, but didn’t take my hand. Did she know me?
Suddenly there was a loud scraping of wood on wood as the two men scrambled out of their seats and grabbed their coats.
“See you at dinner,” one of the old men called. I glanced over and they were both heading out of the front door, struggling into their jackets.
“Tell your ma I’ll be out about her septic,” the other man said.
The slamming door was very loud.
Their meals were about half finished and they both had coffee in their mugs. I was not winning any friends so far.
I sat back down, settling my hands on the bar.
“Well, that was sudden. Was it something I said?”
She glanced up and shrugged.
“Folks get nervous around strangers,” she said, looking down at her hands. She started to take a step toward me, but glanced around. The bar dead-ended at a wall farther away from me. For her to get away, she’d have to walk past the end of the bar and well within my reach. I sighed.
“Sorry if I’m inconveniencing you,” I said, pulling a twenty out of my wallet. I laid it on the bar and grabbed my helmet. I turned to step toward the door but stopped when she called out.
“Alex,” she said, her voice shaking. “Alexandra, actually.”
I turned back.
She was standing at the edge of the bar with her hand out.
I watched her for a moment, noticed how her hand was shaking, and stepped forward, taking it into my own. Her grip was firm, if a little sweaty.
“Alexandra is a beautiful name.”
She glanced back into the kitchen where I saw the old woman watching us, then pulled her hand away from mine quickly, tucking them both into her armpits
“We don’t want any trouble,” Alex said, her voice shaking.
What the hell?
“Is that a sword?” the old woman asked from the kitchen. “I think that’s a sword.”
Alex waved at the old woman, “Hush, Munner.”
I motioned toward the bar, and Alex nodded. I stepped back and before sitting down again, slid the scabbard off my shoulder and laid Gram on the bar in front of me.
Alex let out a sigh and reached out, like she wanted to touch the sword, but she stood a good seven feet away. “You’re her, aren’t you?”
“Her who?” I asked, perplexed. Okay, I’d killed a dragon, been marked by Odin, and killed a few giants and trolls, but I was hardly a household name. Still…
“Of course it’s her,” Munner said, waving a hand in my direction and turning back to the grill.
Alex leaned against the bar, visibly shaken. “Wow,” she said, then nothing.
We sat there in silence for a while, Alex staring at me, and me getting more and more weirded out by the whole thing.
There was a clatter in the back, and Munner came around through the other room carrying a plate heaping with food and a second plate with toast.
“Fill the woman’s coffee,” Munner snapped, setting the two plates in front of me. “And get her some of the good steak sauce. The stuff your ma makes. Chop, chop.”
Alex jumped to, grabbing the coffee pot and filling my empty cup. Then she opened the cooler behind the bar again and put a bottle of some concoction in front of me along with a spoon.
“Tomato based,” she said, unscrewing the lid. “But it’s the best thing you’ll put in your mouth today, I guarantee it.”
Munner walked over and flipped the sign on the door to “closed,” turned the locks, and switched off the neon sign out front. Then she walked to the back where I heard the other door being locked. I began mixing the gravy into my hash browns while Alex watched me. Soon Munner was in the back, turning off the grill and scraping it down.
“Are you folks closed?” I asked, confused.
“We are now,” Munner called from the kitchen. “Dragon business takes precedence over filling bellies around here.”
I choked, spewing coffee onto the bar, barely missing my food. Would’ve been a shame, because that was some of the best sausage gravy I’d ever eaten.
I just watched them, shock and trepidation warring in my chest. Who the hell were these people and why hadn’t Nidhogg warned me to look for them? Of course, Nidhogg kept her secrets close. Maybe that’s why there was no one worried I was out here on my own.
Unless they were the necromancers and I was being poisoned.
I pushed the plate away and Alex smiled, catching the flow of my thoughts.
“It’s not poisoned,” she said.
I eyed the food, dubious, and she laughed.
“Jesus,” she said, grabbing a fork out from under the bar and reaching over to scoop up a glob of gravy-covered potatoes. She ate it without blinking.
“It’s a sin to poison something as good as Munner’s sausage gravy.”
Munner came over to the bar, with three shot glasses and a bottle of whiskey. She poured three shots and raised hers into the air. This was some strange shit.
“I’m glad the hoary old bitch finally sent someone out this way,” Munner said, her eyes filled with purpose. “We’re glad for the help.”
I picked up my glass and held it high.
“Whiskey is the water of life,” the old woman said, her words an intonation. “Let this enrich our lives and bolster our courage for what is to come.”
“Skål,” Alex said and downed her shot a split second after Munner.
I eyed them a second longer, muttered “Skål,” and downed the shot. They each set the shot glass down on the bar, upside down, with the sound of finality.
“Alex, let her finish her meal, but then I need you to take her out to the Gunderson place. Start there.”
Alex nodded, her face pale but set. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to get your mother and the rest of the sewing circle.”
Alex nodded again and motioned for me to eat.
I sat there for a minute as the old woman shrugged into her coat and mud boots. “Try the pepper sauce. You won’t ever forget it.” Then she was out with a bang, a walking stick in her hand.
“Sewing circle?” I asked, picking up my fork.
“Bunch of old women getting in everyone’s business,” Alex said, rolling her eyes. “Living in the past, keeping to the old ways.” She sighed. “I can’t tell you how exciting it is to meet you face to face.”
I guess the sewing circle was one of the clandestine groups that proliferated throughout the state, reporting into the Nidhogg’s network, helping her to keep tabs on the goings on in her protectorate.
But Alex, now that girl was like a puppy, watching me eat and practically vibrating with excitement. I was half convinced that she was flirting with me.
The steak was good and the steak sauce was heavenly—sweet and savory with a bite of peppers. At some point I’d have to bring Katie back out here for oyster hangers. She loved them. I ate as much as I could, but frankly, the whole thing was overwhelming. Alex insisted the food was on the house, but I left twenty by my plate just the same.
The Gunderson place was on the island. The bar backed onto a canal that separated the island from the true mainland. There was a sturdy bridge connecting the island, so we walked in the mid-morning gloom.
Which wasn’t unusual for this part of the country—overcast and gray was the norm. I was just glad I’d had a dry ride all the way out from Bellevue, and the day promised to remain so. No rain in the forecast until Wednesday at the earliest. For January I’d take it. Overcast helped to keep the heat in so it was hovering in the low forties. Clear skies would’ve seen the temperatures drop by at least ten degrees, and that was just uncalled for.
The Gundersons, Alex explained, were a retired couple who kept a house here as their escape-the-big-city getaway. Not sure why anyone would want to come out here for a vacation, but the world takes all kinds. Their house was cute, two bedrooms with a central great room and a good-sized pellet stove to keep the place toasty. With access to that kind of breakfast, and some decent coffee, I was beginning to think I could see the appeal of the place. At least until Alex led me to the back room.
Off the kitchen was a storeroom that looked like a Costco warehouse. The place was nearly as large as the master bedroom and there were enough supplies here to last the entire winter without power.
Unfortunately the place had also been used for something dark. I slid Gram from her sheath as soon as I felt the first tingling of dark magic. Someone had died here, and not quickly. Alex shied back, swinging her hurricane lantern between us. It was one of those rechargeable types that used LED lights. Put out some serious light. But Gram enhanced my vision and I could see things the lantern could not show.
In the back, next to a rack of toilet paper—so much toilet paper—someone had been nailed to the wall. There were arcane symbols gouged into the cement block, and the floor had a series of interlocked circles drawn with chalk, wax, and blood.
The runes that Odin had marked on my scalp tickled and I turned to see a second, less powerful set of markings. There were straps and cuffs attached to large bolts here, a place to bind someone without doing any permanent damage. Someone was really into S&M, or maybe keeping prisoners. The energy here was much older than on the opposite wall. Whoever had been shackled here had been for sport—a witness to the torture and murder on the opposite wall.
“Damn,” I breathed as the blackness throbbed in the room. Some seriously bad magic had been used here.
The ritual circle was bent at ninety degrees, though—half circle on the flat floor, half circle on the wall. Not sure how they’d done that without causing a break, but what the hell did I know about necromancy?
Two people had been tortured and questioned here. At least one of them killed. There had been blood harvested here for the magic it held, but more than that, there was a sadistic pleasure in the killings.
“Gundersons?” I asked.
Alex coughed once, and I looked back. She was struggling. I motioned with my head and she turned, leaving the room as fast as she could. I followed, giving her a wide berth as she vomited into the sink.
When she’d cleaned out the sink and rinsed out her mouth, I handed her a paper towel off the dispenser by the fridge.
“Not the Gundersons,” she said.
“You going to be okay?”
She nodded, dabbing at her forehead with a wet paper towel. “Two of their friends. Young couple come out here in the off-season for,” she paused, looking away. “More grown-up activities. She glanced back at me, her face a mask of scarlet. “They leave their kids with their parents and come out here for a few days of…” She trailed off.
“Bondage games?” I asked.
Alex gave one quick nod and ran the water in the sink, splashing it on her face.
“Not something new then? Wouldn’t be a surprise to the Gundersons?”
“I need to get out of here.” Alex turned off the lamp, set it on the counter and walked past me, brushing against me in her hurry to get out. For the briefest of moments a scene flashed through my mind. Something where Alex was in pain.
I followed her out and she was sitting on the porch, her head in her hands. I paused and placed a hand on her shoulder. “You okay?”
She shrugged and let out a long sigh.
“Doesn’t get any easier.”
I slipped Gram back into her sheath and sat down next to Alex, putting my arm over her shoulder.
“So a lot of grown-up games out here, but why the killing? Any ideas?”
“Munner thinks they were mixed up in something, drugs probably. But we need to go out the back for the next stop on this nightmare tour.”
We crossed the garden and went through a gate in the fence. To the left there was a rather deep stand of trees, not much light in among the boles, not in this gloom.
“What’s that place?” I asked, pointing into the woods. My runes were tingling even more.
Alex was watching me, a strange look on her face. “You don’t seemed very phased by all this.”
I shrugged. “I’ve seen some pretty grim stuff.”
She averted her eyes and nodded. “Fair enough.” She turned and walked across the road toward another house. This one was smaller, likely a single bedroom. “You need to see the rest before we go into the woods.”
Definitely smaller than the Gunderson’s place, and not nearly as kept up. The place had been ransacked inside. There was blood flung onto the walls in every room. Black candle stubs coated the counters and tables, window sills and even the back of the single toilet. Hundreds of black candles had been burned in here, burned down to nothing.
And there had been an orgy in the middle of the house, a wild affair that reeked of magic and death.
“How many died here?” I asked. I looked back and Alex stood in the doorway, her face pale.
“Seven,” she said. “All teenagers. Lot of beer, weed, and sex.”
“You know any of them?”
She turned away.
The people who did this pulled as much magic from the sex as they did the blood. This definitely smelled like the same necromancy that had killed my friends. I didn’t need to stay in that house. At this point, I had no doubt about the necromancy going on here. I just needed to know where to find the sick bastards who were doing this and put them out of their misery.
I looked around, scouting the area, and noticed that Alex was watching me again. “You feeling okay?” she asked.
It was sweet that she was concerned. “I’m feeling fine, why?”
She just shook her head, muttering under her breath, and turned toward the wood. I pulled out my cell phone to call in the cavalry as I followed her into the woods. I was scrolling through my contacts looking for Qindra’s number when the world grew fuzzy.
Once we crossed the threshold under the boughs, the light dropped away to almost nothing. There was an oppressive feel to the place. There was something wrong all of a sudden and I felt the world shift. I looked over at Alex who was asking me something I couldn’t make out. Then the world started to melt and I fell to my knees, dropping my phone mid-dial. I reached for Gram, hoping I could get my hands on her before it was too late. I face-planted into the forest loam.
When I woke up I was standing calf deep in ice cold water and muck. I looked out at the open ocean, the tide back a dozen feet or more, and a field of thick mud between it and me. Everything was blurry, like maybe I was drunk, but that one shot shouldn’t have done this. And why couldn’t I move?
I rolled my head to the side and saw Alex, naked as the day she was born, standing on an escarpment to my right. Her feet were nearly level with my head. This would be a dry spot to stand when the tide came back in. Well, for her. Not for me.
Of course, that’s when the cold hit me and I noticed I was naked as well. Naked and tied to a pair of crossed beams. Now I was pissed off.
“What the fuck?” I asked, turning my head take in the rest of my surroundings. My gear was thrown in the muck around me including my Doc Martens. My jeans and other pieces of clothing had been cut off me. And damn it, I liked those jeans—wide enough in the hips without looking like clown pants. The Docs were going to be hell to clean with all that mud and crap caked into the stitching.
I raised my head to Alex and the world spun again.
“Surprised you’re awake,” she said, a mad gleam in her eye. “Of course, you took your sweet time passing out.” She was grousing. “Never saw anyone eat so much of Ma’s pepper jelly and stay upright as long as you did.”
Okay, note to self. Sausage gravy is sacred. Jelly was poisoned.
And it was really good, too.
I turned, looking toward the shore, and saw a semi-circle of old, naked women making their ever-lovin’ slow progress out to us. Well, mostly naked. The muck was deep and they were all wearing hip waders.
“Sewing Circle?” I asked, pointing toward the old women with my chin. I was trying desperately to ignore the pounding that had started in my head. There was something big happening and my runes were telling me it was bad.
“Yeah,” Alex said, her voice an explosion of anger. “Said I brought too much attention here and instead of letting me have you, she insisted that you needed to be sacrificed to appease the great Shen.”
I just stared at her. “The Great Shen? Seriously?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s the real deal.”
I studied her face, waiting for her to laugh. “Chinese, if you can believe it. No idea how it ended up out here, but there you have it. Best oyster beds on the west coast, and all it costs us is an occasional sacrifice to the great knobbly shelled one.”
She wasn’t laughing.
She shook her head and glanced back. “I would’ve kept you around a while, had some fun.” Her face flushed red again, only I noticed now it ran down her neck and across her breasts. Girl was either cold or very excited.
“Instead you get to be eaten by a giant oyster. Really does suck. I’ve seen this thing. It’s large enough to swallow one of our fishing boats.”
I looked out at the edge of the incoming tide, trying to imagine an oyster that large. The image was ludicrous. Imagine the eggs and hangers you could make with an oyster that size.
“Tide’s coming in,” she said. “As soon as it does, Shen will rise up and suck you in. I can’t imagine it’s a great way to die.”
“Drown most likely,” I said, watching the old women make their pathetically slow way out toward us. “What the hell is keeping them?”
Alex grunted. “Old age, I’d hazard.” She licked her lips and stared down at me. “I’m thinking it’s time for a new generation to take over.”
Great. Crazy and power hungry.
Alex squatted down, her knees to the side, thank goodness. I was not in the mood to see any more of her than necessary.
“They want to cut on you a little. Let your blood wash out into the surf when it comes in. But they are so damned slow.”
“How long do I have?”
“Thirty minutes tops,” she said, her voice resigned.
“What about the Gunderson’s friends?”
She smiled sheepishly. “That’s my house, actually.”
I just shook my head. Alex was the necromancers who’d escaped. Nice to know. Just wish we weren’t both naked in the middle of a stinking tidal flat. We’d be having a different conversation.
“Why necromancy?” I asked as the old women paused around one of the old rock outcroppings. As long as we were talking there was no cutting and no mighty Shen. My runes were burning and my mind was going a mile a minute. I just wished I had a plan.
I glanced back over to see Alex walking down the shallow path that curved around to where I was staked out. Her eyes dark and wide. The lust was clear on the girl’s face.
“I may kiss on you some,” she said, pausing on the last foot of dry ground and staring at me. “We could’ve had such a good time together.”
She was toying with a knife that I hadn’t seen a few minutes ago. What else was up on that damn perch? Was Gram up there?
I tried not to think about the fact we were both naked. That was just demoralizing. She was very cute, all the right curves, and a really sweet smile. But that whole murdering people for fun and profit thing was a definite downer.
“How long has the knitting circle been sacrificing people out here?”
“As long as we’ve been fishing these waters,” she said, stepping into the water and grabbing the knots that held my right arm to the wooden cross. “Munner always tied the strongest damn knots. Even large men haven’t been able to break them.”
I thought to Katie, stuck home recovering from near death and here I was going to die naked with this crazy, screwed up young woman drooling over me.
Alex trailed her hand down my arm and over my right breast. She sighed as she did it and my body arched like I’d been hit with a bolt of lightning.
“There is such power within you,” she said, dreamily.
I thrashed against the ropes as she chuckled quietly and leaned in, placing a soft kiss just above my belly button. Again the lightning flashed through me at her touch. This wasn’t natural. This wasn’t okay.
“Get away from her,” Munner’s voice cut in. Alex growled low in her throat and turned, the knife out, facing three of the old women.
“Let me cut her,” Alex said, the need strong in her voice. “Let me play with her a bit first. Why do you care?”
Munner looked at one of the other women, who turned her head in shame.
“She’s your daughter,” Munner said in disgust. “Will you let this go on? This abomination?”
My runes flared again, clearing away a bit of the fog that Alex’s touch had flooded over my body. Abomination? Which part? The necromancy or the girl on girl action? I really wanted to kill all of them, a very lot.
“The calling has already occurred,” Alex’s mom said, her voice a combination of fear and anger. “I will handle this.”
She strode forward, her great rubber boots squelching out and back into the muck as she closed the final distance toward me. She began to chant in Chinese, Mandarin I think, as she pulled a thin boning knife out of her left boot.
I struggled for a moment, but Alex placed one hand against my shoulder and I froze, my entire body shaking, but the surge of energy that ran through us set my ears to buzzing. I didn’t even feel the first cut that her mother placed down one arm, but when Alex jerked her hand away, the pain flared to life.
All in all she cut me a dozen or more times, each deep enough to keep blood flowing, but not deep enough to cause me to do anything stupid like die before the giant oyster god, Shen, showed up for his dinner.
I turned my head toward Alex, sweat covering my face as my blood dripped into the water that now rose up over my hips. Alex hovered near me as her mother washed her knife in the incoming tide.
The other women had gathered then, all on various levels of the escarpment. Their arms raised high, their nakedness no longer a joke to me, but terror. This was old age, this was power gone wrong, this was madness.
I’d lost my will, the bleeding had weakened me to the point that even the runes on my scalp had stopped tingling. I was numb below my sternum as the icy water continued to rise. Another five minutes or so and I’d be completely underwater.
Soon enough I was tilting my head backward, attempting to keep the waves from covering my nose and mouth. I was so cold that even the cuts had stopped hurting. I was minutes from death by drowning, if not exposure, when the voices behind me rose to a crescendo and Shen arrived.
Alex had not been lying. It was the biggest damned oyster I’d ever imagined. Bigger than my parents’ house. It rose above the waves, a two-story tall monstrosity of thick, wavy shell covered in dark lichen and great knobs of barnacles and other embedded detritus. Near the very top of the oblong mollusk there looked to be a boat anchor buried in the hoary shell.
Suddenly I felt the surge of water being pulled toward it as it sucked in the bay. Oysters feed by capturing plankton and other small bits of edibles, like human sacrifices it would seem, through its gills. If I didn’t drown, I’d be digested inside that huge monstrosity. I could feel the tug of that suction, being drawn taut against the ropes that bound me. Not sure how this sacrifice was supposed to work if I was tied up, but I was beginning to lose the ability to care.
Then between one great surge into the maw of that oyster and the next, the embankment behind me gave way and the old women tumbled into the sea, Alex among them. Shrieks echoed all around me as several women floundered in water over their heads. Most of them were making their way toward the shore, when I felt someone grab a hold of me from behind. It took me a minute to recognize Alex there, her knife flashing in the weak light, and suddenly I was cut free. Shen drew in another great suck and two of the old women were pulled out to sea. I tried to grab the cross beams but missed. As I fell beneath the waves I heard Alex screaming my name and saw her hurl something over my head.
The last thing I saw as I tumbled down into the surf was Gram spinning end over end, then I was caught by the ultimate sneaker wave. At the last moment, I drew in a deep breath and fell beneath the surface.
I smashed against the mighty Shen, feeling my skin tear along the rough shell. I flailed about, looking for something to grasp onto when the suction subsided. My foot connected with something soft, but solid, like maybe one of the old women who’d fallen in with me. What a shame. I kicked off, driving toward the surface.
My head broke across the top of the wave long enough for me to draw half a breath when I was sucked back under again. I tried desperately not to cough, but there was silt-filled water in my mouth and nose.
I opened my eyes, facing my death wishing I could’ve spent one more second with Katie, one more kiss. Just the smell of her, the feel of her in my arms.
A long chunk of driftwood floated before me and I grabbed it, stabbing it own into the mouth of the oyster. It shuddered and again the suction stopped. I kicked wildly back toward the surface and broke above it. This time I got two solid breaths before the world shifted.
The oyster, apparently not happy about its dinner fighting back, rose underneath me, its great shell creaking open.
As it closed over me, I saw a miracle. In its haste to eat me, it had drawn in several bits of debris, including Gram. I dove toward the blade, dove into the heart of the beast.
Then the world went black and my ears popped as we dove beneath the surface once again.
The runes on the back of my calf flared as my foot touched Gram—her mark, the day we were bonded—runes that matched those on her blade. I bent double, grasping for it as the muscle of the oyster pulsed against me. This wasn’t how it normally ate, but that didn’t mean I would live.
I was pressed up into the underside of the shell by the thick muscle of the main body. The world started to go from red to black when the pressure released and I felt a burning sensation flash across my legs. I looked down to see a glowing shape, long and thin, flames licking along its length despite being under water.
I twisted, grabbing the end that wasn’t flaming, and felt a surge of power flood through me.
I don’t know how long I lashed around with the sword in that tight space before my mind began to grow fuzzy from holding my breath too long, but finally it gave up. The shell swung open and I was ejected at a rather high velocity back toward the shore, where I landed in a heap in the brackish water.
As I sat up, waste deep in water, and struggled to catch my breath, I looked around to see if the circle was going to attack me. Three figures were visible on the escarpment, Alex, her mother, and Munner. The others were making their way back to dry land, wading through the waist-deep water.
Back out to sea, Shen sat, the shell open and bloody water seeping over the rim of the lower shell. Maybe I’d killed it after all. There wasn’t a part of me that didn’t hurt, but the sweetness of oxygen was all I wanted to think about at that moment.
By the time I felt strong enough to wade to shore, Alex and her family were gone. The walk back into town was painful and slow, but I found a house fairly close to this end of the island where it happened no one was home. I broke in, found a phone, and called Qindra, Nidhogg’s witch. This had gone way beyond a simple scouting mission, or even a quick strike. No one had thought I’d run into a giant oyster sacrifice.
I stayed in that house, raided their fridge, and cleaned my wounds while I waited for the cavalry. It only took them three hours to arrive in mass. I didn’t ask what happened to Alex and her family, but Qindra assured me that they wouldn’t be hurting anyone ever again.
In the meantime she healed me the best she could and got some clothes that mostly fit me. I spent a bit of time over in Astoria at the hospital, getting some stitches and a tetanus shot. They also gave me a broad spectrum antibiotic just in case I caught something from the muck in the bay. Then Qindra had someone drive me home.
A few days later my bike was back in my possession and there were several large packages delivered. All my gear was lost, well besides Gram and what was on my bike. In the boxes were several pairs of jeans that fit me, a few t-shirts, a new set of riding leathers, and a small cookbook with recipes for oysters.
I gave the cookbook to Katie and left Qindra a voicemail with more colorful words than I’m sure she was used to hearing.
But I was home, another threat was dealt with, and I had spent a few days healing in the sweet arms of Katie Cornett. That was the best medicine of all.
The news reported breaking up a meth ring out in Littleton with several townsfolk arrested and several missing, running ahead of the law.
No one asked too many questions, and the locals were either too shocked by the loss of Shen, or so used to the Sewing Circle’s ways that they just never spoke up. Funny what generations of culture and social Darwinism will do.
I never heard about them finding a giant oyster. Story wasn’t reported anywhere, not even the conspiracy magazines you see at the grocery store. Either it escaped after all, or Qindra took care of it. I might ask her some day, but not today.
Today I was taking Katie out on the Ducati and heading someplace away from the water, maybe into the mountains, for something not seafood related.
J. A. PITTS resides in the Pacific Northwest where he hunts dragons, trolls and other beasties among the coffee shops and tattoo parlors.
He can be found online at www.japitts.net.