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When I got out of this, I'd have to track down Volodja and his friends and thank them for this fun excursion. Assuming there was anything left after Aunt B and Keira were done with them.

How the hell was I going to get out of here?

Something bobbed in the water in front of me, a dark bundle. I sped up. A canvas sack, watertight. Hmm.

The sack moved.

I put six feet of water between me and the sack with a single kick. Clearly I'd had too much excitement for one day.

The sack twisted. A bulge stretched the fabric on one side.

Maybe someone had stuffed a cat into a bag and thrown it down here. Of course, if my experience was anything to go by, the sack would contain a giant brain-sucking leech that would immediately try to devour me. Then again, considering the current mess, the leech might not view me as a tasty treat. Nope, no brains here.

The sack twisted.

No guts, no glory. I swam to the bag, pulled my throwing knife out, and sliced at the cord wrapped around its top. Here goes nothing. I pulled the sack open and looked into it.

A human face peered at me with bright eyes. It belonged to a man in his forties or fifties, with a short gray beard, a hawkish nose, and bushy eyebrows. There was nothing exceptionally extraordinary about it except for the fact that it was about the size of a cat's head.

I'd seen some freaky shit, but this took the cake. For a second my brain stalled, trying to process what my eyes saw.

The owner of the face lunged out of the bag into the water and sank like a stone.

He sank. Crap.

I dove down and grasped the flailing body. He couldn't have been more than eighteen inches tall. Deadweight hit my hands. At least thirty pounds. I almost dropped him. I kicked, dragging him up.

We broke the surface.

I gasped for breath. A small fist rocketed toward me. Pain exploded in my jaw. Good punch. I shook my head, dragged the struggling man to the stone ledge, and heaved him onto it. He scrambled up.

We glared at each other. He wore a bronze-colored tunic with an embroidered collar, dark brown pants, and small, perfectly made leather riding boots.

What in the world would he be riding? A Pomeranian?

The man blinked, studying me.

I'd managed to find a hobbit in the Caucasus Mountains. I wondered what he would do if I asked him about second breakfast.

The man opened his mouth. A string of words spilled out.

"I don't understand," I said in English.

He shook his head.

"Ne ponimayu."

Another shake. Russian didn't work either.

The man pointed to his left, waving his arms, frantic. I turned.

Something slid through the water at the far wall. Something long and sinuous that left ripples in its wake.

I flipped the knife in my hand and pressed against the wall, as close to the stone as I could.

The creature slid downward, into the water. The surface smoothed out.

Another ripple, closer. Smooth water again.

The opening bars of the theme from Jaws rolled through my head. Thanks. Just what I needed.

If I were something long and serpentine with big teeth and I was hunting for some lunch, I'd swim up from underneath my victim.

I took a deep breath and dove.

A silvery-green beast sped toward me through the clear water. Fourteen feet long, as thick as my thigh, with the body of an eel armed with a crest of long spikes, it swam straight for me, its eyes big and empty, like two yellow coins against the silver scales.

The serpent opened its mouth, a big deep hole studded with a forest of needle-thin teeth.

I pressed against the wall, my feet against the rock.

The serpent reared and struck. I launched myself from the wall, grabbed its neck, hugged it to me with every drop of strength I had, and jammed my knife into its gills. The sharp spikes sliced my fingers. The serpent coiled around me, its body a single, powerful muscle. I dragged the blade down, ripping through the fragile membranes of its gills.

The serpent contorted, churning the water. I clung to it. To let go was to die.

My lungs begged for air. I stabbed it again and again, trying to cause enough damage.

The serpent writhed, impossibly strong.

Black dots swam before my eyes. Air. Now.

I let go and kicked myself up.

The serpent lunged at my feet. The teeth clamped my boot but didn't penetrate the thick sole. I jerked, trying to kick myself free. I could see the shiny ceiling where the air met water right above me. Another foot. Come on. I rammed my other foot into the serpent's head.

The teeth let go. I shot up and gulped air.

The tiny man on the ledge screamed.

The silver spine broke the surface next to me. I slashed at it, trying to cut it in half. The serpent clenched my foot again. Teeth bit my ankle and yanked me down.

I kicked as hard as I could, trying to swim back up. If it dragged me down, it would be over. Magic was my only chance. I pulled it to me. Not much there-a weak magic wave.

The serpent pulled, drawing me deeper and deeper under the water. I kicked its head. One. Two . . .

The serpent let go, turned, and swept at me. I swam up like I'd never swum before in my life. My muscles threatened to tear off my bones.

I broke the water. I needed a power word. I could command it to die, but Ud, the killing word, usually failed, and when it didn't work, the backlash crippled me with pain. The stronger the magic, the less pain, but this magic wave was weaker than most. The killing word would hurt like a sonovabitch.

I couldn't afford to be crippled right this second or I'd end the day as fish food. The only other attack word I had was kneel. The serpent had no legs.

The serpent reared, rising from the sea, its mouth gaping. A moment and it would slam into me, like a battering ram.

The small man spat a single harsh word. "Aarh!"

A torrent of magic smashed into the serpent. It froze, completely still.

I lunged at it and thrust the knife into its spine. The serpent shuddered. I sawed through its flesh, nearly cutting it in two.

The serpent jerked and crashed backward. I kicked free.

The creature convulsed, whipping the sea into froth. I swam away from it, to the ledge, gasping for breath. The small man slumped against the stone. A small dribble of bloody spit slid from his mouth.

He'd used a power word and it worked. Thank you. Thank you, whoever you are upstairs.

I held on to the ledge. The small man leaned over and held my hand, helping me hold on.

The serpent flailed and thrashed, until finally a full minute later, it hung motionless in the water.

The man petted my hand, wiped the blood from his lips, and pointed up. Above us, about seven feet above the stone shelf, a narrow hole split the wall, a little less than a foot across. Not nearly wide enough for both of us.