Before Whiteout – The Lake

I wrote this story about two years ago now, but it seemed a fitting time to re-write it and put it out there. Here’s one of the many tales of Nick Ventner’s adventures that take place before my upcoming novel, Whiteout.

The Lake

It was a gorgeous morning. The sun rose over the black surface of a lake that reflected the surrounding mountains like a mirror. Nick Ventner and his apprentice James glided across the smooth water through tendrils of steam rising in the chill morning air.

“Couldn’t have asked for a better day.” Nick was positively beaming. In one hand he held a thermos that was mostly rum, splashed with a bit of hot chocolate, and in the other, a spyglass stolen from the crumbling arms of a long-deceased pirate king. In short, everything was as it should have been.

“Enjoying your morning, James?”

James sat sandwiched between two stacks of large, wooden crates, and held two fishing poles between his legs. Given the cramped nature of the small boat, he was forced to lean back over the edge to grab the oars on either side. He wore a look of sullen contempt combined with a sleep-deprived stupor as he tried to maintain a consistent rowing pace.

If Nick was upset by his silence, he said nothing and returned to scanning the lake. Pockets of fog heavily obscured sections of the water, clinging to it in thick columns. “Those are our best chance. Lots of fish in there.”

James mumbled something that sounded derogatory.

“Oh come on, don’t be so sour. Can you think of a better way to spend a morning?”

“Sleeping,” James replied, matter-of-fact. He looked haggard. In just six short weeks, the frantic nature of Nick’s employment had stolen a great deal of youth from him. Dark circles hung under his eyes, and there was a hollow nature to them that reminded Nick of the undead.

“This was supposed to be my day off,” grumble James.

“This is a day off! I’m taking you fishing. Didn’t your parents ever take you fishing?”

“Uh huh.” James nodded to the crates surrounding him. “I suppose these are just oversized tackle boxes?”

Nick shrugged. “You never know what the fish are going to bite.” It wasn’t an outright lie.

“Sure, and these?” James lifted the lid on the crate nearest to him revealing a pair of military-grade shotguns.

“I have enemies…”

“What exactly are we fishing for, Nick?”

“Trout?”

James sighed heavily.

“Oh come on. Here, I’ve got something for you.” Nick stood and tried not to rock the boat too much as he pried the lid off one of the other crate. Inside was a four-foot-deep pile of chocolate bars and two dollar store beers on top of them. Nick took one for himself and handed the other to James.

He briefly stopped rowing to examine Nick’s gift. “Please tell me these aren’t for us to drink.”

“Well, we’re certainly not going to eat the chocolate.”

“Why in God’s name do we need all of that if we’re not going to eat it.”

“She likes it… I mean trout like it.” Nick hastily returned to scanning the water.

Just as James was about to ask who ‘she’ was, the boat jolted hard tipping to one side briefly. A few feet to the right, a large, sleek, black hump surfaced briefly and then dove below.

“Told you.” Nick crane his neck to get a better look, but whatever it was had vanished.

A sense of terror overtook James’s body as the purpose of their “fishing trip” became clear. In the sky, a group of clouds passed in front of the sun casting the boat into a gloomy shadow.

“What the hell was that?”

“Do you really want to know?” Nick asked, rummaging through the many pockets of his coat. Eventually he pulled out a small moleskin notebook. Usually he would have brought the hand-written encyclopedia that had been passed down by his master, but the boat was full, so he had copied the relevant pages. The lake was silent as he scanned, pausing only for nervous glances at the water.

“No, I suppose I don’t.” Through his months of employment James had learned that there were some questions that were better left unanswered.

For a few minutes there was only the silent rustle of Nick going through the pages of his notebook. Then, the calm of the lake shattered. From beneath, a mighty force propelled the boat into the sky. They were slammed onto the hull by the sheer force of the impact. The sound of rushing water and cracking wood filled the air.

Nick leapt for the crate containing the shotguns, but as he stood to do so, the dinghy’s small bow gave out. There was a shattering crack and Nick began to fall. As he tumbled backward, he saw a massive, elongated, black head, filled with rows of jagged white teeth biting through the brittle wood. We should have brought a bigger boat, he thought.

For a dizzying moment, the boat was suspended above him in the sky, propped up by the beast’s thick black neck. As he tried to get a clearer look, the water rushed up to meet him, knocking the wind from his lungs and blotting the creature from view. His limbs were leaden in the cold water and Nick felt himself sinking.

Below, he could feel the eerie sensation of something massive moving in the darkness. Opening his eyes briefly, he could only see the outline of the creature’s body, black against the dark green of the lake. Muted crashes echoed through the water as the remaining pieces of the boat fell.

Trying to fight through the icy pain seeping into his body, Nick swam towards the surface. One of the shotguns sank past him in a lazy descent as he kicked furiously. He imagined the creature dipping its mouth into the water and eviscerating him in one bite, but no such end came. In fact, the water grew quiet as the crashes above him subsided.

After what felt like an eternity, Nick broke into the cool morning air, gasping for breath. A white roil had formed where the boat had been, but the creature was gone.

“James!” Nick yelled.

There was no answer. The lake had gone completely silent except for the gentle lapping of waves as they journeyed towards shore. A few feet away, the crate of chocolate bobbed unharmed. Nick paddled toward it, and hoisted himself atop.

The crate didn’t provide much buoyancy, and for the most part he was still submerged in the frigid water. The green hills that had before seemed peaceful, now only seemed too far to swim to.

“James,” he cried out again, wincing slightly. If the creature is eating him, it won’t take very long, and then it will be after me. The inky water beneath filled Nick with renewed terror. He did his best to steady his heartbeat. Think Nick, where’s it going to go next?

He looked down slowly at the crate of chocolate beneath him, and reluctantly pushed his flotation device away. The safety of the crate was not worth the allure of the bait within it.

Bubbles broke the surface a few feet from him and Nick’s body froze. Time passed like molasses as he watched the water part in slow motion. He could see the smooth object breaking the surface, and waited for the inevitable maw to show itself.

Just as he felt death was upon him, James popped out of the water, terrified as ever, but most certainly not a lake monster.

“Did you see that?” he sputtered.

“No, James, I didn’t see the massive beast eat our boat and toss me into the water.”

James stopped treading water long enough to flip Nick off and then paddled towards the box.

“Very cute, James. Stay away from the box you imbecile, it’s what she’s after.”

Even in his growing aggravation, James listened and backed away from the box. “You still haven’t explained what she is.” A tremor had crept into his voice. He shivered in the frigid water.

“Oh all right,” sighed Nick, trying to take his mind off treading water. “She, is The Loch Ness Monster; Well, that’s a bit of a misnomer, there’s quite a few of them, and they don’t all live in Loch Ness, but you get the idea. This particular lady has been quite the hassle for the fishermen in the town at the south end.”

As he spoke, one of the beer cans surfaced and bobbed serenely in the water. Nick swam over to it, pulled the tab and drank deeply. It might have been shit beer, but the warming sensation that accompanied it was worth the taste.

“How are you so calm?”

“There’s no point in losing your head in these situations.” Nick took another swig of the beer. “You want some?” He pushed the floating can toward James.

“Yeah, thanks,” he said, grabbing it and taking a drink. “Is it gone then?”

“Of course not. We’re in extreme danger.” Nick looked around the water for any sign of their weapons, but knew it was no use. “I’d complain about the shotguns being gone, but I thought the clerk was trying to upsell me with the waterproof shells anyway.”

“You didn’t spring for the waterproof shells?”

“Or the flotation stocks.” Those few dollars had been spent on the prior evening’s drink. “Listen James, every arms dealer is going to try and get you to buy specialty ammunition. It’s like the insurance on a car rental.”

James, only being 24 had never rented a car. “We’re screwed then?” he whined.

“Good and proper, but at least we still have the chocolate.”

James’s eyes began to water with tears at the thought of the end coming so soon.

Nick laughed at his weakness and casually swam back to the crate full of chocolate.

“What the hell are you so happy about?”

“You should see your face.” Nick lifted the lid off the crate and began throwing chocolate in the water.

“We’re about to die!”

“Not a chance. Well,” Nick stroked his stubble thoughtfully. “Good chance actually. Are you a decent swimmer?”

James shrugged in anger.

“Pouting does us no good. I’m going to take that as a yes. Nick continued to unload the crate’s contents in the water until they were surrounded by hundreds of floating candy wrappers. “Now, unless I don’t know myself well, there should be some sort of explosive in the bottom of this crate…”

“You don’t remember?” asked James incredulously.

It was Nick’s turn to shrug. “That tends to be the case when you black out.” The last thing he remembered was holding a royal flush and betting a year’s take for a keg of ‘special brew’.

“Ah, there it is,” Nick exclaimed.

James swam over and looked into the crate. Beneath a thin layer of chocolate bars, the bottom third of the crate had been filled with plastic explosives. “Oh my god.”

“Yup, stole the plan from Jaws. Really is a miracle that it didn’t explode on the fall. Guess we should count our blessings, eh?”

James stared at him, mouth agape.  “You had me sitting next to that.

“Hush now, we were both sitting next to it. Don’t worry, I’m about 50% sure this will work.” Next to the rows of explosives was a small orange box labeled: “life raft” in crude letters that looked like they had been drawn by a child.

“You didn’t think to put the life raft on top?”

Nick thought about it. “That would have been smart, but I’m guessing I prioritized practicality for speed.”

“How are we going to get away?”

“Well that’s where the swimming comes in, and I suggest you start right about now.” Nick pushed off the box and into the water, carrying the life-raft with him.

As he did so, a thin line of ripples spread out from a point in the center of the floating chocolate. Nick could feel the water vibrating beneath them and knew they were low on time. His arms felt rubbery, and burned mercilessly, but he pushed forward all the same.

“That first ripple was the creature locating the source of food,” gasped Nick in between strokes. “The second—”

He was cut off as a much stronger vibration shook the water hard enough that Nick wondered if his organs would liquify.

“Well, that’s going to have to be far enough.” All in all, they had made it about fifty feet from the crate of explosives.

Nick pulled a ripcord on the lifeboat and held on tight as the raft expanded. A bright orange ring spread over the water, and both men clambered onto it as quick as they could.

At the same time, a current of water welled up beneath the box and pushed it into the air. White foam broke the surface as the beast lunged from beneath. Yellow eyes peered out from an otherwise dark exterior. Thick cords of muscle tensed as the jaws closed over the box, and hoisted it further into the air.

Even with their proximity, Nick could not help but find the beast incredible.

Then, as the creature’s jaws snapped shut, the world became a bright flash of orange, followed by deafening thunder. A look of surprise filled the beast’s expressive eyes as fire burst from within it. In less than a second, it’s head ripped apart and was replaced by flame.

A wave of water and gore shot out from the source of the explosion, catching the life-raft and propelling Nick and James at immense speed. Heat and wind followed, picking up the raft and tossing it like a child’s kite into the air. Nick watched with awe as the water below them boiled and began to turn dark red with the beast’s blood.

He had time to think: I can’t believe that worked, and then the raft flipped over sending them spinning toward the water below. There was a loud smack as his head hit the surface, and then, darkness.

################

When Nick awoke it was to the crackling of wood and the sound of waves slapping on a beach. He tried to move to a sitting position, but the pain was immobilizing. It was as if every inch of his body had been used as a punching bag for a prize fighter.

“Easy there,” said a gruff voice from beside him. “It’s a miracle you’re both alive.”

Nick turned his head to his side and saw an older man in brown robes, adorned with astrological symbols tending to a small campfire. Beside him lay James, eyes fluttering to awareness, breathing slowly.

“Oh god, not you,” moaned Nick.

The old man chuckled. “So polite to the person who just saved your life.”

James stirred and looked quizzically at the man. “You supposed to be some kind of wizard?” he mumbled through a swollen jaw.

“Sure a—”

“Martin is a necromancer,” interrupted Nick.

“How many times have I told you? I’m not a necromancer.”

“Your shop does have a necrotic talking head, does it not?”

Martin ignored him and turned to James. “Here, take this.” He passed him a silver flask. “I don’t touch the stuff, but from what I hear, Nick practically breathes it, and it’ll help your pain.”

Nick’s eyes widened and he was about to protest, but Martin held up a silencing finger.

James took the flask and sipped at it cautiously. Fiery alcohol of unknown origin sped down his throat and evaporated the pain in his limbs. “Wow. Thank you,” he coughed, gasping slightly.

“Not a problem my boy.” Martin returned his attention to Nick. “Now you, rude or not, it appears you owe me a favor.”

“I sure as hell do not,” protested Nick.

“Ah, ah, ah, I saved your life, and that of your apprentice. In fact, let’s call it two favors.” Martin licked one of his bony fingers and held it to the sky, testing the wind. “I’ll be coming to collect,” he said, absentmindedly. “Don’t leave town.”

There was a puff of smoke and Martin disappeared, leaving James and Nick alone on the beach watching the steadily rising sun. James passed the flask to Nick who drank deeply.

“Hell of a fishing trip,” James said.

Nick turned to him, serious at first, and then began to laugh. “Lake monsters are nothing kid. If you think that was wild, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

End

Nick and James return in Whiteout!

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