The Monster in the Lake
by Johi Jenkins
He didn’t kill me, Amka thought for the hundredth time that afternoon. She sat cross-legged on the floor eating supper with her family, but her mind was back in the cave. He could have killed me, but he didn’t.
The monster had grabbed her arm, easily, yet he had let her go when she pulled back. She had known he was deceivingly strong, and very quick; yet she had let her guard down. He could’ve killed her, but he hadn’t. At the very least he had a conscience. He wasn’t a vicious demon.
And also for the hundredth time, she looked at her forearm and wrist where he had touched her. The rich color of her skin had looked so sharply contrasted in his pale, grayish hand. He had looked so … so frail.
He could be dead by now, she thought as she ate a piece of bread. The thought was upsetting.
She was worried about him!
She stood and excused herself. “Mother, Father, I must go prepare for the hunt.”
Her mother smiled. “Amka, you looked worried all supper. Do not fear. You are the best huntress we have. You will find this creature, and kill it.”
Amka felt blood rush to her cheeks and looked down. She tried to keep her voice from betraying her. “Thank you, Mother.”
She walked to her late uncle’s hut. It was the farthest hut from the village; he had used it as a sentry post. He’d had no wife and no children, so when he died Amka had taken over it. She still lived with her parents, but often stayed here, especially of late as she had been hunting the monster.
The monster …
The sun was still up. About six hours had passed since she had left him tied up and bleeding in the cave. He might be dead already, she thought again. The notion gnawed painfully at her insides. She tried to shake away the unwelcome commiseration as she prepared her tools and hunting gear. She needed to focus and bring food to her family today. She shouldn’t care for a murderer.
And yet she found herself leaving the village away from her usual hunting grounds, her feet taking her along the lake toward the secret cave, walking at first, then running. By the time she reached the entrance to the cave her heart was about to burst, and she finally slowed down. I just need to know what became of him, she told herself as she walked the passage to the spot where she had last seen him. She would be cautious. But her heart raced on. She couldn’t tell if the apprehension she felt was the dread of facing a blood-drinking monster again, or the idea of finding him dead.
The answer was obvious as her heart swelled with relief upon seeing him sitting up against the wall of the cave. He was now deeper in the shadows, away from the light coming down the opening above, but her eyes had adjusted to the dark and she could see him. His wrists were still tied and he looked worse than he did the last time she had seen him. Except … the expression on his face. She didn’t understand it. There should have been concern for his own wellbeing, or anger at her, or distrust at the very least. After all, she was to blame for his current predicament.
But his face, trained on hers, was lit with something like … happiness?
“Hello,” she said awkwardly, standing about ten feet from where he sat.
“Hello,” he repeated.
She smiled despite the circumstances. He had repeated the greeting in her language. Then she remembered she had resolved to be cautious, and immediately dropped the smile. She cleared her throat.
“Um, I came back to help you. I feel … sorry … for doing this to you. So I will bring you an elk for you to … drink.”
He just looked at her, curious or confused, she couldn’t tell.
“How much … blood do you need? A big elk”— she motioned wide with her hands—“or something small, like a goat?” She brought her hands closer together.
He shook his head. “No kill … animals.”
“What! Why not? You drank from all those animals before, didn’t you?”
“You …” he shook his head and said a word in his language, while feigning an angry face, “before. I feel … sorry.”
I was angry before when I called him out on killing the animals, and he’s sorry, so he doesn’t want me to kill an animal for him? Was that what he was saying? She was shocked. In the short time that had passed he’d somehow picked up enough words to communicate with her.
“I didn’t understand then,” she explained. “That you needed blood, I mean. You need to eat what you need to eat. So I’ll hunt something for you.”
“No kill,” he said again.
“I can’t just persuade an elk to come here willingly!” she cried, exasperated—and at that moment a new thought occurred to her. A dangerous one. “Wait. Would you have to … kill … the elk, if I bring one in here alive?”
“No kill. Drink … a little bit.” He held his thumb and first finger close together, as he had earlier that day.
Here goes, she thought. “Then … I can help.” So much for being cautious. She ignored her inner voice of reason and grabbed her blade from its sheath in her boot. She pointed the tip at her wrist; the same spot he had bit on his own wrist hours before. “Take a little bit.”
Shocked, he shook his head. “No.”
“It’s fine, I won’t die,” she insisted.
He shook his head again, and lowered his head, looking away from her. But not before she caught a glimpse of something—hunger.
Although he resisted, she could see the need in his eyes, in his demeanor. And she felt responsible for it, for weakening him. So she ignored him and brought the tip of the blade to her flesh. She took a second to take a breath, steeling herself.
But the blade disappeared from her hand.
“No,” he said again, and was suddenly standing next to her, his restraints snapped without effort. He held the blade in one hand in the air above her, the other hand around the wrist she had intended to cut.
What … what just happened?
Even earlier, the first time he’d grabbed her hand, he hadn’t been in this close proximity to her. Now his body was mere inches from hers, and her free hand rested on his chest pressed between their bodies. The scales on his clothing were a thing to behold; but she couldn’t spend the time examining them as she would’ve wanted, because her whole attention was engaged elsewhere. On him. On the feel of his fingers around her wrist. And his face, his eyes. The irises were a clear, green color she’d never seen in a person before.
Amka’s heart beat erratically. His closeness forced her to acknowledge the feelings she’d been feeling all day, but that she hadn’t had the courage to admit to herself.
That she was attracted to a monster.
Thal had meant to push her away. He had underestimated his hunger before and killed a man; he wouldn’t let that happen again. He was famished now, and weak; an immense threat to the girl. He didn’t know if he could be able to stop after a little bit, as she was offering.
But when he held her wrist and felt her warmth so close to him, and her hand on his chest, it was much, much harder to resist her. He might have fought the attraction he felt, though, except that as he looked into her dark brown eyes he saw her thoughts were aligned with his.
Against his better judgment he released her wrist and dropped her blade onto the cave floor, then brought his arms around her. One hand at her lower back pulled her body against his, and the other one traveled to the roots of her fierce black hair, gently turning her head to expose her neck.
He lowered his face to her soft skin. Then he bit her.
“Ah,” her little whimper escaped her lips.
Her blood touched his tongue and his life wholly shifted before him. His arms tightened around her, pulling her even closer. The person he thought he was, and everything he’d ever thought he wanted, all disappeared; he wanted nothing except this girl and her sweet blood, and her supple body in his arms. Her mind opened to him, and he felt her great pleasure past the brief shock of the bite. Her mind was full of him. Her face lifted to the cave ceiling.
If this is dying, I don’t mind so much.
Her thought sobered him up and broke through his stupor. He forced his head up. It was over too soon.
“Why did you stop?” she asked in a daze. He understood the meaning of her words exactly.
“I … good,” he said, testing the words. In his own language he added, “Thank you,” and stepped back to give her some air.
But he saw her neck was still bleeding. Tentatively, he reached a hand up to her neck where he had bit her. He could heal her, but he felt he ought to ask her first.
“May I touch?” he asked in his language.
She didn’t understand the words, but she grasped the meaning well enough. She nodded.
So he brought his finger to one of his fangs and bit, and a bright red drop of blood appeared as she watched with wide eyes. He spread his blood over the two small puncture marks, and heard her surprised thoughts as her wound healed and the pain receded.
She touched her neck. “It’s all healed,” she said, rubbing her fingers over her smooth skin. “No pain. No wound. How did you do that?”
“My blood healed,” he said, extending the finger he had bit, showing her there was no wound there anymore, either. Then he lifted the hem of his now tattered garment and showed her his side where her spears had pierced his skin. “No pain. No wound.”
He heard both her gasp and her internal exclamation of surprise upon seeing him fully healed. And then her silent regard: He is so beautiful.
As his mind automatically added the words to his growing list of her vocabulary, he was thrilled to discover that particular one—beautiful. Excitement over learning the word—and the context in which she had thought it—made him smile.
“You heal so quickly,” she said in awe.
“You feed me. I healed.”
But her pride in helping him turned to guilt in the next instant, as the family person she called Uncle appeared in her mind. Thal had seen this thought before. He stepped back from her and looked down, ashamed.
“I’m sorry for … uncle,” he said.
He felt her surprise. For the first time, she wondered if he could read her thoughts. It was a strange thought to her, the idea of hearing thoughts. Thal realized humans didn’t have this ability. But she didn’t ask him about it—yet. Instead, she thought of her uncle again. She had cared for him deeply.
“Why did you kill him?” The night of her uncle’s death, a month ago, flashed before her eyes. She contrasted what she’d then called the monster with the monster before her now. She didn’t think of him as a crazed animal anymore; she looked for an explanation in her mind. She remembered he had run away limping when she had approached. She wondered if he’d been hurt, then.
He nodded at her unspoken question. He bent and grabbed her blade from the floor where he’d dropped it. “I killed elk. Uncle …” Thal mimicked tiptoeing.
Snuck up on him, her mind provided, understanding him.
“… and then he … hunt me,” he finished, and he mimicked stabbing his back. He didn’t have a word for stabbed yet.
Realization hit her. There had been a dead elk next to her uncle’s body, she remembered. And that explained the monster’s limping—her uncle must have stabbed him. “Oh,” she said.
“I hungry,” he recounted sadly. “I drank from uncle. I take … not a little bit.”
It had been an accident. Thal had been raised with a healthy fear of humans, the sun dwellers. After leaving his underwater cave he’d hunted animals easily enough, but he’d been careless. He’d left the carcasses for the wild animals to feed—it didn’t occur to him that humans might find them and wonder who or what was behind the animal killings. When the man attacked him, he had defended himself, and drawn blood. Blinded by hunger, and perhaps fear, Thal drank until the man stopped struggling. Only when he heard shouts behind him did he remember that engaging with humans was something he should avoid at all costs.
He’d fled and retreated to his underwater cave, and only returned to the surface when he strictly needed to, once a week when he was hungry; and even then, he’d hunted far from the village. But he didn’t realize someone had been hunting him.
“I’m sorry that I hurt you, too,” the girl said, and he could see she was remembering their first encounter two nights before; how she had attacked him while he’d been looking down at her, distracted. She was embarrassed that she had attacked him without provocation, as her uncle had done.
And yet Thal didn’t blame her. He understood now that it was her duty; she’d thought she was protecting her people from a monster. When he’d heard the footsteps behind him as he had tried to free the little goat, he’d realized another human was trying to kill him, but he hadn’t expected it to be a girl. He’d been mesmerized by her beauty. As a true hunter, she had used his weakness against him and stabbed him. He’d run away, but instead of staying out of sight he’d come back like a fool the next night, hoping to see her again.
Instead he’d almost met his doom.
“But you … came back to help me,” he pointed out. “And you … feed me.”
He heard the embarrassment in her thoughts again and saw her blood rush to her cheeks. Her skin color was so warm and exquisite; he yearned to touch her again.
“I had to,” she said, and in her mind she added, I wanted to.
“Wanted to?” he repeated.
She looked at him curiously. How does he know what I’m thinking? “Can you hear … what I’m thinking?”
“Yes,” he said. “I can hear.”
Impossible, she thought, in denial. But then she thought of several times he’d answered an unspoken question. “How?”
“I just do,” he said in his language, shrugging, as he had no explanation either in her language or his. Hearing thoughts was as natural to his people as hearing sounds, or speaking.
He is so different, she thought. What an odd creature. Her eyes traveled over him. His height, his long arms—then they fell on his wrists. Specifically, on what was left of the ropes that adorned his wrists.
“You broke my restraints so easily,” she pointed out. “But why didn’t you, earlier? You could have gotten free anytime. You could’ve walked out of here anytime.”
He shook his head. “No walked out. Night creature,” he attempted to explain, pointing at the light coming from the opening above. He was weak and the sun was still out. But he could have broken her restraints. He didn’t though, because they were hers. He looked down at his wrists with affection. “You restraints me,” he answered.
I restrained him, her mind understood his faulty use of her language. “I only tied you up because I thought you were dangerous. I’m sorry.”
“No sorry. I’m not dangerous to you.”
Again she looked at him in awe. “How are you learning my language so quickly?”
He didn’t know how to answer that exactly. He could hear the thoughts that accompanied the words she said, so he very easily grasped the meaning of each word or group of words. And he remembered every word that she said. “I learn quickly.”
“Well, then,” she said, sitting down on the cave floor, “now that we can talk, tell me who you are. And … your name. My name is Amka.” She placed a hand on her chest, pointing at herself.
“Amka,” he repeated, instantly loving the sound of her name. He sat down across from her, then pointed at himself. “Thal.”
“Thal,” she repeated.
They both smiled.
Amka had grown up hearing tales of blood-drinking demons that some remotely ancestral tribe had encountered ages ago. Children told the stories to scare their younger siblings; they were supposed to be just that: children’s tales. But after talking to Thal for several hours, engrossed in the history of his people, Amka realized the stories were likely based on real events that had been downgraded to fiction over the last hundred years. The more he talked the more she wanted her time with him to never end; but unfortunately the sun had other ideas. She kept glancing at the opening above them, getting sadder by the minute, until Thal noticed.
His thought-hearing ability was quite handy for their communication, she noted, but it had its disadvantages. Such as then, when he heard that little voice she had been ignoring for the last hour telling her she had to go back to take care of her hunting duties. She’d come back empty-handed two days in a row, and the village jerks would be sure to point it out if she didn’t bring something today. And for that she needed daylight. Which was quickly retreating.
“You have to go back home,” Thal surmised, in his newly-learned language of hers. He only had a tinge of an accent. “Don’t be sad. I’ll come back tomorrow and meet you again. And as for today, don’t worry. I can help you catch anything you need.”
“Oh, that’s … thank you,” she accepted his offers, trying to hide the excitement from her voice at the thought of seeing him again the next day.
So very reluctantly they left the cave together. If the amount of light left bothered him, he didn’t show it. He brought down a boar for her easily enough, an animal she rarely hunted because they were huge and their tusks were dangerous. Thal even carried it for her. They continued their talk until the path they walked along the lake turned inland toward her village. There they stopped to part ways. He had to go back to his underwater cave, he’d told her, and he couldn’t very well walk her to the village. People would faint.
Very carefully he slung the boar over her shoulders, and as he stepped closer to her the excitement and awe that had filled her most of the afternoon talking to him, and later witnessing his hunting skills, quickly dissipated. Gloom crept in again over their impending separation, despite his assurance that he would come back. What if he didn’t?
“As soon as the sun sets,” he promised, “I’ll be in the cave.”
“I would like that … very much,” she admitted.
She didn’t know how to part with him, because she’d never needed to part with a guy she liked; and also because most of her physical faculties were presently occupied holding the boar steady over her shoulders.
“Until tomorrow, then,” she said.
“Until tomorrow.” He was smiling as he turned and walked into the water.
Amka smiled too as she watched him dip underwater with a final wave at her. Then she walked the rest of the way home with the smile plastered on her face. She barely felt the weight of the animal slung over her shoulders. She went straight to her house, getting cocky when passing villagers commended her for a kill that wasn’t hers, but that no one knew it wasn’t. She dropped it off outside her hut on her father’s stone slab. Her mother and father always dressed her kills and took care of the other nasty details.
After freshening up she returned to her late uncle’s hut to return and clean all her hunting gear. She dropped off her weapons, then grabbed a water basket and walked to the well. Her mind full of Thal, she didn’t notice Aruk casually leaning against a nearby tree until he spoke. The sun had gone down already and it was getting dark very quickly, but she still kicked herself for not seeing him there as she approached.
“That monster looked quite like a pig,” he said. “I thought it was supposed to be a giant fish?”
Amka had no intention of letting the little dung ruin her mood. “You’re more than welcome to join me in the hunt one day, if you and your pal Torren want to learn how it’s done.” She couldn’t help the biting sarcasm in her voice.
“I don’t think so,” he said slowly.
Her body immediately shifted into defensive mode. Aruk’s tone had changed—her mind took note of several details all at once: his body language, his stance, the size of the tree he was next to, which could hide a number of threats to her. And something else, perhaps most significant of all: Aruk was never one to initiate a provocation. That was always—
She whipped around almost too late. She ducked, avoiding being nearly skewered by Torren’s spear. She kicked out at him as she ducked, but only managed to push him away a few feet. And piss him off.
“What the hell?” she asked them, needing an explanation. They were jerks, yeah, but she never expected Torren to attack her. And with a freaking spear! And yet she saw Aruk had grabbed his own spear as well.
So this was how it was going to be. Two armed against one unarmed. Attacking her from behind, too. Cowards.
“Good evening, huntress Amka,” Torren said. His voice was malicious and full of hatred. “I hope your day has been pleasant so far. It won’t be so pleasant now, I fear.”
Again she wanted to kick herself. This level of dislike coming from Torren must have been brewing in him for a while now, and yet she had never noticed. She always took his taunts as just harmless jealousy. Clearly there was something bigger going on. How had she missed the signs?
“Why?” she asked him, circling around him, placing both of them in her line of sight.
“The hunter must be the strongest,” Torren said simply. “And you’re not the strongest.”
Amka cursed silently. She should’ve known. She was older than him by a few years, and throughout their childhood she’d always been bigger and faster than him. He was still young, around seventeen, but in the last few years he’d caught up with her in size and was now taller. She was still faster and a better hunter, though. Or so she had thought.
They charged. Aruk circled around her, trying to flank her, while Torren thrust with his spear, over and over again. She danced out of the way, while simultaneously analyzing their moves and looking for an opportunity to grab either of their spears; but after not even a minute of this, Aruk, so impatient, decided to just barrel toward her. She side-stepped at the last second and managed to land an elbow to his temple … but the distraction was all Torren needed, and he rushed at her again; this time, the spear caught her arm as she wasn’t as fast to side-step the charge. The cut stung but it wasn’t deep. Yet, it was enough to incite them further. And worse: break her confidence.
She stumbled back, and as they both looked at her savagely, she knew she would not be able to dodge their next charge. Anger filled her heart as she was forced to accept her imminent fate.
But a strange new sound broke through the darkness. It was like the sound of waves crashing against the shore, or wind howling through a narrow crevice. In an instant Amka’s anger vanished and she smiled. The two sadists in front of her didn’t even have a chance to see the blur that came barreling toward them from behind, but she did.
Thal crashed against Aruk, and the vile young hunter went flying into a tree with a sickening crack that no human could ever survive. Amka cringed at the sight of him, at the same time that she heard a whimper. She turned to the sound—and saw Thal had grabbed Torren by the neck, and had forced him down on his knees, choking him.
She had the pleasure of seeing Torren’s eyes filled with a savage fear. “See … he’s real,” she couldn’t help but say.
Thal looked into her eyes, and into her mind and her darkest thoughts, probably, because he nodded almost imperceptibly right before he turned back to the whining Torren in his hand. He squeezed, and Torren’s neck snapped with a satisfying crunch. Then he let go, and her enemy’s body crumpled to the ground.
Amka ran to Thal, and he pulled her into a tight hug. The confrontation and the terror of what had just happened finally caught up with her, and she shook and gasped, clinging to her savior. She had never felt so vulnerable as she had moments before Thal had appeared; and now in his arms she felt the safest she’d ever felt, despite learning that he could crush her into pulp if he so desired. His speed and strength had taken her by surprise.
After another moment she calmed down. Then she realized she was … wet? She pulled back, puzzled, and noticed Thal was wearing a tunic that was plastered to his chest and dripping with water.
“I came directly from my home,” he explained, still holding her. “I felt something was wrong, almost as if I could hear your thoughts from far away.”
“They jumped me. And it took me by surprise. I feel so … stupid.”
“Don’t,” he said, and brought her close to him again. “You’re clever. You trapped me. You could’ve killed me. They were just … cheaters.”
Cheaters. Anger flashed again in her mind. She looked down at Torren. They got what they deserved. And yet, they hadn’t. Aside from a quick moment of fear, they had died too quickly. They deserved worse.
“Drink him,” she offered, nodding at Torren. She knew Thal hadn’t drunk nearly as much from her as he could have. He had to be hungry still. And there Torren was, perfectly good food about to go to waste.
Thal looked hesitant, but he did a little shrug, agreeing with her. He finally let go of her and took a step back. “You’re right. No need to waste.”
He grabbed the body liked it weighed nothing, and sliced the neck open with a fingernail. “So it will look like it was a spear,” he explained, before he covered the cut with his mouth, drinking deeply.
Amka didn’t flinch.
When he was done, he dropped the body to the floor again, then turned to the well behind him and cleaned his lips and mouth with water, as if washing away something distasteful.
“Was his blood as revolting as he was?” she asked.
Thal laughed, returning to her. “No. It was alright. But I had your blood, and that was heavenly, so I’m ruined forever to the bland blood of others.”
She smiled, his laughter and his compliment improving her mood infinitely. She couldn’t resist him anymore. So she reached up and kissed him.
She felt his momentary surprise, then his immediate response. His arms went around her again, and he kissed her back. Slowly, but deeply.
Oh wow, she thought. This is better than I imagined.
She had to wake her parents, the elders, and maybe a villager or two to explain what had occurred with Torren and Aruk. But it could wait a bit. As Thal’s lips moved over hers so sweetly, everything else could wait. She was content to just drift in the surge of feeling that engulfed her.
To Be Continued. . .
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