Note: This story takes place after Rites of Passage, but before Red Hand Rising.
Basking in my (okay, our) victory over the Speed Demon, Eli Romer and I (Sawyer Shepherd) returned to Sage City, Colorado. Eli told me various tales of demonic monsters he had hunted over the years, including a few he had heard of, but had not encountered.
There were werewolves and vampires and a Jersey Devil. Lots of possessions and the occasional demonic pet that got loose. Yes, you heard that- demonic pets. Which is interesting he mentioned that based on what came next.
We arrived in Sage City late on a Wednesday to a message on Eli's machine. It went like this:
"Hey Eli, Norm Redding here. It's been awhile. Look, I'll cut to it. We have had some cattle mutilations out here in the Northwestern Arkansas Ozarks. We got wolves and whatnot, but these mutilations have slime on them, too. Then the other day, couple campers were down by a river and they heard something crawl up out of the water. Big something. They didn't get a good look at it, before it attacked them. One of 'em got gored pretty good, and the other got big claw marks, but they got out. Told 'em it was a gator. But it ain't. Sound like your kinda thing?"
Eli called Norm back and told him we were on our way. Then he called Mandy Jane- my partner in training- and informed her we would pick her up on the way. She was off at college in Gunnison Colorado, but apparently this experience would trump that. And it would trump sleep, too.
We drove all night, taking turns, then drove most of the next day. Nothing like no sleep and driving through the long flat of Oklahoma to make you regret your life choices.
We arrived at our destination, Boston Mountain Ranger Station, just after sundown, and Norm Redding was waiting. He was about seventy, and medium in stature. He wore a felt fedora and khaki cargo pants. His eyes were a deep blue that seemed to say he had seen a lot in his day. We introduced ourselves and we learned that Norm had retired from the Forestry Service a few years earlier, shortly after an incident with a beast that Eli had taken care of.
"A black dog," Eli said as if that was to mean anything to us.
"So, you hunt strays, too?" asked Mandy, a mix of sarcasm and genuine curiosity that only she could pull off without sounding petty.
Eli laughed. "No, a black dog is a demonic hound. Not exactly a hell hound sent to collect on deals, but a hunter. Sometimes they get out and do a little sporting. That one killed a couple campers before we got it."
Norm nodded somberly. "Yeah, and whatever this is- it just took a camper about an hour ago. Husband and wife- the man got taken. Wife said it was a crocodile- officially. Off the record, she said it slithered more than walked, and that it had tusks."
Mandy's face went white. "Slither? Like a snake?"
I tried to be the comforting partner (and potential someday love interest) by gently putting my arm around her shoulders to offer comfort and said, "Don't forget, it's like twenty foot long, too."
I think her punch left a sizable bruise on my rib cage.
Not wanting to waste any time, we grabbed our hiking supplies- including machetes and several powerful firearms- and headed down the trail. I was also carrying my Roman gladius- the Sword of God as it had named itself. Rumored to be made of the nails from the actual Cross of Jesus, it may or may not have significant supernatural power. We are looking into that- but it had come in handy several times already.
After about fifteen minutes of unhindered hiking, we hit the denser treeline, and before too long, the trail grew steeper and more ill defined. It was easy to see how one could get lost. Norm was explaining some of the more frequent dangers in the area. Rock slides when it rained, falling branches from old trees, an occasional mountain lion. Norm explained that the mountain lion would sound like a scream, and that as a ranger, that sound was more terrifying than anything he had ever seen. Save that experience with Eli a few years back.
Not five minutes later, we heard a scream. "Mountain lion?" I asked hopefully.
Norm's face was grim. Even in the low light, I could see fear in the lines of his aged face. All he said was a hoarse, "No."
"That's a man," answered Eli. "It's hard to tell its origin. I think that way?" He indicated an easterly direction with his machete. We picked up the pace.
Within ten minutes, the only sound was our footfalls on the ground. Occasionally we picked up on the rush of water in the direction we were heading. At first it just sounded like a small stream, but as we drew nearer, the rush became a dull roar. Then we heard the scream again. It was close.
Eli, Mandy and I broke into as much of a run as we could manage, bounding over boulders and downed logs every few steps. I shouted now, as the river was much louder and I could see sparkles of moonlight reflecting on it through the trees occasionally. "Any idea what we might be hunting? Just in case I accidentally run into it while we sprint blindly towards danger?"
"Eli, if you say giant snake, I swear I will turn around right now!" Mandy yelled.
"Nah, not a snake. Or a basilisk, either. Might be a gowrow. Kinda giant slug crossed with a cavefish that has arms. " Eli was breathing heavy, which is not surprising with our pace and his moderately advanced age.
We broke through the treeline and we were on the banks of a large river. There was a current, and you could smell the sent of fish heavy in the air. The current was decent in most spots, but the roar we heard was from the bends up and down river where the currents bordered on whitewater. But where we stood was mostly calm, and probably passable. Which was good.
Because laying on the opposite shore was the body of a man. He was bloodied and wet, and he was screaming. This close, we could hear that he was actually yelling "Help!"
Without thinking I dove into the river to cross. I guess adrenaline was pumping and I as still high on that last twenty six hours in the car. I shouted, "Stay there we are coming for you!"
Instantly I regretted this for two reasons. One, the water was much colder than I thought it would be. Two, it was much deeper than I expected. I plunged in and sank for a second before I could get my swim stroke down. I was submerged, and when my head broke the surface I was halfway across. I could hear Mandy and Eli yelling, but I was committed to the crossing now.
That's when I felt something swim past me toward the bank I had just left. It was large and very soft, and it seemed to pay me no mind whatsoever. I at first thought it was a fish, but if it was, it was very long. The cold had dulled my thoughts, so I did not reason anything out until I reached the other shore and crawled out- my body numb from the cold. I ran up to the man and kneeled beside him. I placed my hand on his shoulder to calm him. That is when I realized he was not wet- he was slimed.
Then I heard a sound that was part sucking sound, part squishing sound. I turned in time to see a large, semi-translucent worm looking thing emerge from the water on the opposite beach and start to crawl- wait, it had ARMS- toward Mandy and Eli. Norm had joined them, saw the worm and turned and ran. Good man.
Eli and Mandy were firing at the beast with their guns- Eli had a .357 Magnum, and Mandy had a twelve gauge. Mixed in with the blasts from the guns was a squelching sound as the shots hit their mark. The shots were working, as the beast was slowing down- but not fast enough. In a last ditch effort, I unsheathed my gladius and shouted, "Use this!" before throwing across the river.
In a stroke of great skill (that should read luck) the gladius embedded itself in what should be the creatures head. It screeched once, then collapsed and went to ash. All was quiet once again except the roar of the river. "Nice toss!" yelled Mandy.
Eli was not so happy. "What if that had landed in the river? We can't afford to lose this sword. Don't be a fool, boy!"
"Noted. Now, since I saved the day, mind helping me get this guy back across?"
Mandy and Eli waded slowly into the river and I helped the camper to his feet. Norm, who had apparently decided not to completely run away re-emerged from the forest. The camper was awake enough to dog paddle on his own and I got him halfway across when Eli took his hand and pulled him the rest of the way. I decided to paddle across myself.
I could hear Eli saying, "Yeah, that was a gowrow alright. Other than magical swords, apparently-" he cut his eyes at me- "-fire does them pretty well. But problem is, they're so slimy, it takes nearly an explosion to-"
I didn't hear the last because I was pulled under the water. There was a faint glow surrounding me, and I turned and looked into two giant glowing eyes. It looked almost like those deep sea fish in Finding Nemo. But it had arms. And one was pulling me down and back toward the bank. Then I saw more glowing. Eyes. Dozens of them. But smaller.
It was the gowrow nest and it was in an underwater cave. And I was meant to be food for the kids. I kicked and spun, then remembered I had a pistol of my own and tried to fire. One shot hit the right eye and it released me as inky black blood filled the water around me.
I shot out of the water and gasped for breath. Mandy was shouting my name, and then she saw me. "What happened?!?!"
I coughed and sputtered as I climbed ashore. "Nest. Dozens of babies and momma are down there in a cave."
Norm looked ready to bolt. Eli was thoughtful. "Got just the thing." He dug into his backpack. "Thought it might be gowrow, and that I'd need waterproof fire. So I brought these." He produced two grenade looking devices. "These will burn underwater- kinda like a phosphorus grenade- and that should do the trick." He handed one to Mandy and one to me. "Good luck!"
Mandy and I looked at each, then at Eli. I faces apparently conveyed the message well enough. "Hey, hey- I am not a strong swimmer- and besides, you need practice." We looked at other, and I turned and reluctantly dove back down.
The residue of the wound hung in the water, so we followed it down to the cave, where we saw the large and medium sized glowing eyes. We pulled the pins and then swam as close as we dared, then tossed the grenades in. We started to swim backwards and up as the eyes came towards us- then the explosion tore through the water. We were blown up and out of the water and onto the bank. The opposite bank deformed as it imploded the cave. A bright white light glowed under the water, and a single large eye floated to the surface.
Panting and freezing, we laid back on the beach. Eli walked over and smiled. "Good job. And that's rule number one- never hunt alone. I'll get to the rest later. Now- who's ready to head home."
I wanted to murder Eli Romer right then and there.
Chad Lehrmann lives with his wife and two teenage daughters in College Station, Texas, where he teaches High School Psychology, Sociology, and Debate.