The Lake

This is a story I wrote in 2016, but I’ve gone through and re-written it to match my current style better and fix several gratuitous grammatical errors. It takes place before A Man of the Mountain, Whiteout and Downpour (a book series) and serves as a good introduction to Nick Ventner, my favorite drunken monster hunter. Enjoy!


It was a gorgeous morning for monster hunting. 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. Fog hung over the edges of the lake, giving the impression that they were sitting in a bowl ringed by clouds.  

“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 apprentice’s 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.

“Not that you give a shit, but this was supposed to be my day off.”

 “Day off.” Nick scoffed. “I take you for a beautiful fishing trip and you’re whining about a day off?”

 “Do you normally bring tackle boxes this size?” James slapped one of the large crates with the flat end of his oar.

Nick winced at the noise and did a quick scan of the lake.

“Let me guess, scaring the fish?” James cocked an eyebrow. “This would go a lot better if you just told me why we’re here. Maybe I could help?”

“Don’t know what you mean, kid.” Nick continued to look around the lake growing visibly nervous.

James set the paddles down and lifted the lid off one of the crates. “Military grade shotguns?”

“I have enemies, you know that.”

James lifted the lid off the other crate. “And what looks like the result of a twelve-year-old capturing a genie. How many chocolate bars are in here? Is this why you never have enough money to pay me?”

“I’ve told you, your pay is room and board.”

“A box of ramen for each meal is hardly board!”

“I’ll have you—”

“No, Nick, what the hell are we fishing for?!”

“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 fished under the seats for a small cooler. Inside were two dollar store beers and tossed one to James. “Drink that, you’ll feel better.” Or at least I will. Nick had been nipping from a flask all morning, but there was something about cheap beer that leveled things out in the best way.

James examined Nick’s ‘gift’ with a noticeable distaste. “Please tell me these aren’t for us to drink.”

“Well, we’re 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.”

Nick cracked the tab on his beer and took a long pull. He sighed contentedly. “She likes it… I mean trout like it.” Nick 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’ materialized. 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. “Should have brought a bigger boat,” he muttered.

“And why is that?”

“Use your head, kid. Big lake, box of chocolate, shotguns. Not a lot we could be looking for with that kind of gear.”

James wracked his brain. Most of the knowledge Nick passed on was about getting free drinks at Midway’s many dive bars. “Lake monster?” offered James.

Nick laughed. “Good one. Which kind?”

“There’s more than one—”

Then, the calm of the lake shattered as the boat was propelled at immense speed into the sky. James and Nick were slammed into the flimsy wooden beams from the sheer force of the blow. The sound of cracking wood filled the air, followed by the almost calming patter of water dripping on the lake’s surface.

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 fell. As he tumbled backward, he saw a massive, elongated, black head, filled with rows of jagged white teeth biting through the brittle wood. 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.

The cold water froze his limbs, making movement near impossible. Below, Nick felt the eerie sensation of a massive entity moving in the darkness. The fear he felt was the same primal instinct of the first humans to take to open water. Opening his eyes briefly, he could only see the outline of the creature’s body, black against the dark green of the lake. Muted thunder 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. With each passing second, he imagined the creature’s needle teeth catching him from behind and pulling him into the depths, but no such end came. In fact, the water grew quiet. Nick kicked, his lungs burning and his limbs aching. A second before passing out, Nick broke the surface and emerged into the cool morning air.

A circle of debris marked the point in the water where the boat once was. “James!” Nick yelled.

There was no answer. The only reply was the gentle lapping of waves as they met the shore. A few feet away, the crate of chocolate bobbed, miraculously unharmed. Nick paddled toward it and hoisted himself up.

The crate didn’t provide much buoyancy, and for the most part he was still submerged in the frigid water, but it did provide a moment’s rest. The green hills that seemed peaceful before were now a cruel joke. They were close enough to provide the illusion of hope, but Nick knew there was no reaching them. The creature that wrecked the boat was still there, likely just enjoying a meal.

“James!” Nick wondered briefly if he should be making so much noise, but pushed the ceiling alive. “Oh, come on, kid, I’ll give you the day off if it means that much to you!” The inky water below him filled Nick with dread. Think, if it’s eating the kid, where’s it going to go next? He looked down at the crate of chocolate, 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 froze. The water parted in slow motion and he watched a smooth object breaking through the surface. Nick held his breath, waiting for the inevitable.

James surfaced, gasping for air, terrified as ever, but most certainly not a lake monster. “Holy shit, did you see that?” he asked through ragged breath.

Nick’s relief at seeing his apprentice alive was quickly replaced by wounded pride. How the hell did he hold his breath longer than me? “No, James, I didn’t see the massive lake monster shit kick our boat out of the water.” Seriously, is he secretly an Olympian? No one holds their breath for that long.

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

 “Cute. I’d stay away from that box if I were you. It’s what she’s after.”

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

Hypothermia already? Not enough body fat. Idiot.She is what you likely know as 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, James’s beer can surfaced, unharmed, and bobbed serenely in the water. Nick swam over to it, and cracked the tab. “Small miracles.” He drank half the can and belched loudly. If he was going to die, he needed at least a little bit of a buzz while he did it.

“How are you so calm?” James teeth chattered.

“There’s no point in losing your head in these situations. You want some?” He pushed the floating can toward James. It wouldn’t help the hypothermia, but it would help James feel it less.

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

“Almost certainly not.” 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.” The savings had bought them a few rounds the previous evening. “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.”

“I think this is a little different.”

“I don’t see how.”

“You’re infuriating. You do know that, right?”

“Feature, not a flaw, kid.”

“So, we’re just going to sit here, freezing to death, enjoying our last shit beer?” James mustered sarcasm, but the despair in his voice was also clear.

“There are worse ways to die.”

“I’m not ready to die.”

Nick waited until the ghost of a tear formed in James’s eye and started laughing.

 “What the hell are you so happy about?”

“You should see your face.” Nick swam over to 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?” Probably is with that freakish breath.

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, if I know myself, there’s probably explosives 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 about preparing the night before 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 was 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 back from the box, swimming awkwardly with the life raft in one hand.

A thin line of ripples formed at the center of the chocolate and the water vibrating around them. His arms felt damned near useless in the growing cold, but he pushed on anyway. “That first ripple,” he sucked in a lungful of air, “was the creature locating its source of food.”

James swam beside Nick, easily outpacing him. “The first?”

“The second is for—”

Nick was cut off as a much stronger vibration shook the water hard enough to make him wonder if it had done internal damage. He looked over his shoulder and saw the floating debris of the chocolate about fifty feet away. “Well, let’s hope that’s far enough.”

“If those explosives go off in the water.”

“Then our internal organs will shatter from the force. I know, I took physics.” I did take physics, right? School was nothing more than a blur of useless facts and evenings spent drinking cheap pitchers at dive bars. Nick pulled a ripcord on the lifeboat and held on tight as the raft expanded. Soon, it formed a bright orange ring, bobbing on the surface of the water. Both men scrambled aboard.

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 hoisting it high above the lake.

Even at a mere fifty feet, Nick was staggered by the beast’s fury. “This creature has been here for longer than you or I could ever imagine. A true feat of evolution.”

“It’s beautiful.” James looked at the creature with genuine awe.

Then, the creature’s jaws shut with sudden force and 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. The power of the explosion practically disintegrated its head. For a brief moment before the force of the explosion caught up to the world, the creature’s severed neck wavered high above the lake, surrounded by a cloud of shattered bones and gore. Then, heat and wind expanded in an incredible rush, charging across the lake, and vaporizing the top layer of water.

“We might not be far enough.” Nick’s eyes went wide as steam and shockwave charged toward them and picked the tiny, yellow raft up like a child’s toy. Before he could so much as shout, they were airborne, flying in a tumbling arch above a lake that was quickly turning dark red with the creature’s blood. I can’t believe that worked. Nick savored the temporary moment of pride as he flipped and flailed through the air before colliding with the cold surface of the water. There was a bright white flash from the impact, and then everything was dark.

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

The first thing Nick heard was the crackling of flames, followed quickly by the lapping of waves on a beach. His limbs were sodden, sore and abused, but even still, the warmth of a nearby fire soothed them. First, he tried opening his eyes, but found the world far too bright and filled with immobilizing pain.

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

Nick recognized the voice immediately, and somehow, it was worse than dying in the jaws of the beast. He turned his head to the side, ignoring a wave of dizziness and nausea, and opened his eyes. An older man sat by a campfire. He wore brown robes covered in astrological symbols and tended the flames as if they were a child. Beside him lay James, eyes fluttering to awareness, breathing slowly.

“Oh god, not you,” moaned Nick. “What are you even doing in this region? Aren’t you supposed to have fucked off to a witch’s bog to learn the secrets of astral magic or some other bullshit?”

 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?” His jaw was swollen and made every other word unintelligible.

“A wizard. Hrm.” The old man thought about it.

“He wishes. This is Henry.”

James’s eyes widened.

“Ah, I see you’ve told the boy your countless lies about me.” Henry pulled out a small silver flask.

“And the prodigal drunk returns.”

Henry scowled. “I haven’t touched the stuff in years, but from what I hear, you practically breathe it, and it will help the boy’s pain.”

James hesitated, and then took the flask. He drank and hot fire spread down his throat. “Jesus, that’s strong.” He coughed and spluttered.

“Jesus had nothing to do with it, but I’ll thank the maker for you.”

“Henry, why are you here?” Exhaustion permeated every part of Nick’s being and laying less than ten feet apart from his old master made all of it worse.

“Did you even bring my book out on the lake?”

“It’s too damned big, Henry! How many times do I have to tell you that?!”

“Pah, too big. You should see—”

“What you used to lug through the bloody desert, I know.”

“Hrm. Well, it appears you really have nothing left to learn, is that it?”

“Will you shut up and get to the point, old man?” Nick mustered every ounce of venom he could and put it into the last words.

“Well, I’ve saved your life it seems, and by my count, that means you owe me a favor.” A glitter of malice appeared in the old man’s eyes.

“The hell I do!”

“Just you try and find a way around this life debt, Nick. Go ahead. You’ll be exiled from every proper society from here to the Himalayas. No more black markets, no more contracts, no more free booze.” Henry prodded the fire with a stick, coaxing it to grow taller.

Nick sighed, even the whistle of his own breath causing him pain. “Why couldn’t you have just left us to die?”

“I—”

“It was rhetorical. Might as well tell us what you need now.”

“Oh, don’t worry, we’ll get to that soon enough.” Henry stood. “Don’t leave town, Nick.” With a flourish and a puff of smoke, the man was gone.

Nick cursed under his breath for a solid five minutes before lapsing into a pensive silence.

James moved himself to a sitting position. “Well, at least we got out of that alive.”

“And yet, somehow, that’s worse. Get your rest while you can, kid. Whatever Henry’s got lined up is likely no picnic.”

End

Nick and James return in Whiteout (A novel, out now)!

Henry returns, I don’t know, sometime, whenever I write a story or novel for him to return in.


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