Hey there, Insiders!
On October 12th, we release the second book in the awesome Dark Lakes urban fantasy series. The book is titled Past Sins and we thought we’d share the first chapter with you to get you all ready and excited to dive in come release day! Have a read, and let us know what you think!
I was standing next to a lake with the chill northern air nipping at my exposed genitalia.
Which is to say: I was very naked.
Now, believe it or not, I’m not normally the type to go for a naked stroll, which told me one of two things: either I’d gone quite mad—which was a distinct possibility considering my life lately—or I was dreaming.
And dreaming I was. Which was a relief.
Usually, I would be appropriately ashamed to be outside nude. The naked male body is not something to present to a wide audience, at least not mine. I look my best dressed. Preferably three layers between people’s eyes and my skin. But, as I already explained, this was a dream, and I was out and proud.
Quite liberating, really, even if it was all in my head.
I was even whistling as I walked along briskly, my undercarriage lolloping from side-to-side.
Within a few minutes, I found myself by the edge of a lake. It stretched out before me, brilliantly blue, as green hills sat just beyond. It was then that I remembered both where I was, and that this wasn’t the first time I’d had this particular dream.
I was at Lake Derwentwater, the body of water by which I’d awoken ten years ago with no clue as to who, or what, I was. That complete blank had remained up until recently, when I found out a number of surprising things. First, there was the fact I was a warlock, a male witch, and several hundred years old too. That alone would have been more than enough, but the surprises kept on a-coming. What else? Ooh, that monsters of many stripes were real, as was magic, and other planes of existence. And let’s not forget the fact I was apparently destined to sit upon a throne of skulls so I could become a giant monster called the Magic Eater, and then, having taken my bony throne, would bring about hell on Earth
So, there was that.
A bit much to sit with all in one go.
Luckily, I did have someone I could talk to about it.
Unluckily, that someone was a foul-mouthed, drunken woman by the name of Eva, who was as likely to punch me as she was to lend an understanding ear. More likely, if I’m honest.
Anyway, enough backstory, let’s return to nudey dream time…
It was always at this point, with my toes wriggling at the water’s edge, that I remembered I’d had this dream before. I’d been having the dream several times a week for the last month in fact, so I knew what was going to happen next.
I was going to get in the lake and have a bit of a swim.
Being aware of this should have allowed me to take control of things and deviate from the script, but for some reason, I never did. The moment I considered taking a left instead of a right, I’d realise I was up to my waist in water and about to kick off swimming.
And off I went, slicing through the water with the grace of an epileptic buffalo.
You’d think I’d allow myself to be a better swimmer in my own dream, but apparently not.
When I reached the centre of Derwentwater, I took a big gulp of air and ducked under, kicking hard, driving down, down, down into the belly of the lake.
‘Swim down, Janto.’
The voices were distant, tickling at the edge of my hearing, my own mysterious cheering squad.
The voices were familiar, but I couldn’t quite place them. All I knew was that I trusted them, and so down I swam.
‘Swim down, Janto.’
As my lungs began to burn and my vision blurred, the voices were replaced by a ringing sound and—
—I woke, bleary, sitting sharply upright, gasping for air. Clearly, I’d been taking my dream a little too literally, and had been holding my breath in real life, too.
I flopped back onto the pillow, wanting nothing more than to drift off back to sleep, but my phone had other ideas, refusing to stop its annoying, insistent cries.
Being woken from a strange dream by an alarm is a bit of a cliched way to begin a story, yes, but this was a phone call so an entirely different and not at all hack opening.
I struggled out of the corkscrew I’d turned my duvet into during my nocturnal swimming and grabbed my phone.
‘Fucks sake, idiot, can you answer your phone a bit slower next time?’
Ah, the sweary, punchy woman I mentioned earlier. She with the riot of black hair, a favoured ensemble of black ragged clothing, and a coat of many pockets, many stains, and many unpleasant smells that I swear she must have stolen off a slumbering tramp.
‘And a good morning to you Eva. You have heard of the concept of sleep?’
‘Yeah, you can waste a lot of your day doing that. Think of all the drinking hours people give up just so they can lie down with their eyes shut for a bit, love. Waste of time.’
‘I’ve seen you sleep, Eva.’
‘Resting my eyes.’
A smile teased at my lips. ‘Is there something you wanted?’
‘Hm? Oh, yeah, right. We’ve got a job. Missing baby. Monster baby. Thing.’
‘A monster baby?’
‘Take a piss, put your coat on, and come pick me up, idiot.’
The thin woman who answered the door of the pretty, thatch roofed cottage looked grey and wide-eyed, her hands trembling. Clearly she was feeling somewhat emotionally frazzled. I see a lot of this sort of thing at the day job, over at Carlisle Hospital, so I knew tact and a soft touch were required.
‘Jesus, love, you look like you fucked a ghost,’ said Eva, always one to be counted on for her sensitivity.
The woman burst into tears. Of course. Eva offered her a sip of her can of beer, but for some reason the woman refused this generous offer.
‘Suit yourself,’ said Eva, shrugging, and pushed past the woman into her house. Literally pushed past. A two-handed shove.
‘I’m very sorry about…’ I said, gesturing in Eva’s general direction, then meekly slid past the still bawling woman.
Moments later we were gathered in the front room of the house, flames roaring in the open fireplace. The room was neat and ordered to an insane degree. This pair obviously took being house proud to the next level.
The woman had taken it down a notch or two now, and was merely whimpering on the plump, pink couch as her husband, an imposingly sized man with a beard of such mighty proportions that it looked like a bear cub was clinging to his chin, sat beside her staring daggers at Eva. Clearly, he’d had dealings with her before. By this point I’d grown used to Eva having this effect on people.
‘So where—’ Eva paused to unleash a burp of such ferocity that it knocked over a family portrait on the mantel, then carried on, ‘—where is the fucker? Little baby, monster, fuck-face fuck.’
Now, Eva was always inebriated to some degree, but I was getting the distinct impression that she was a little deeper into her cups than usual.
‘It’s upstairs, in the babies room. Sat in his crib,’ replied the husband, which drew fresh wailings from the wife.
‘There, there,’ I said. ‘Don’t worry, we deal with this sort of thing all the time.’ I was trying to ease their worry, but realised they weren’t paying me the slightest bit of notice. I turned to what was drawing their attention: Eva, leaning against the mantel, somehow still upright despite being sound asleep.
‘Eva,’ I said, nudging her awake and almost getting a right hand to the face as she jolted awake, wide-eyed.
‘Baby’s room?’ said Eva, using her sleeve to wipe drool from the corner of her mouth.
The parents nodded.
‘Right. Here we go then. Let’s get the fucker.’
Eva headed for the stairs and I followed, offering a quick, sympathetic smile to the parents as I left.
‘Eva, do we have a plan?’
She paused halfway up the stairs and swayed back at such an alarming angle that I thought she was going to tumble back and crash into me. Somehow she pivoted forward and carried on up.
‘Twat the twat,’ she said.
‘Right. Good plan. Intricate.’
Eva had more or less filled me in on the latest bit of bother on the drive from the coven to the house. We were dealing with a cuckoo. Not the beaked kind, but the Uncanny variety. A creature that imitated a young child and replaced it in the family home, feasting on the psychic power generated by a loving, devoted set of parents.
Usually, they go unnoticed, but this time the cuckoo had chosen poorly, replacing the child of a couple of magicians, who’d managed to clock what was going on.
The door in front of us had a small plate screwed into it that read Jacob’s Room.
‘Hey, if they’re magicians, why couldn’t they deal with this themselves?’ I asked.
Eva patted herself down, then pulled out her tobacco tin and began rolling herself a fresh smoke.
‘Hn. Well. Bit above their paygrade. Pair of useless fuckers, really, far as magicians go. Bit of telepathy. Make stuff, sort of, hover. They can do that. Not much else. And this thing, this cuckoo twat, has to be handled carefully, otherwise the real kid’ll be buggered. Not literally. I mean, it’ll be fucked.’
‘Not any better.’
‘Dead. Lost. Dead lost.’
‘So, how do we kick the cuckoo out and get the real child back?’
‘Got this bit of, shitting, you know, magical thing. Magical totem sort of thing.’ Eva began going through pocket after pocket, before finally locating the item and pulling it out. Some sort of gold coin sat in the palm of her hand.
‘We pay it to leave?’
Eva stared at me with hooded eyes.
‘Okay. We don’t pay it.’
‘Idiot. We make it eat the coin. It eats the coin, and the magical magic coin does what it does and hey-de-ho, drinks all round. Come on, let’s get in character.’
Eva stood in front of the door to Jacob’s room and I tried to calm the war waging inside my stomach between reckless excitement and abject fear. This wasn’t my first monster. In the months since I’d met Eva—or re-met, as it happens—I’d faced plenty of horrific, powerful, horrible creatures, but I’d yet to get used to it. Yet to feel confident in the face of danger.
There was that excitement there, too. More and more, I felt it. This is what I was meant to do. What I had done for hundreds of years before the death of my two fellow witches. Before they died at my own hands, and the Cumbrian Coven fell. And now here I was again, taking my place; a life dedicated to keeping people safe.
I’d also been able to get to grips with some rudimentary magic. Nothing too flashy, but I could manifest a fireball without too much of a struggle, and I could, on occasion, fling objects through the air without touching them.
I’d yet to impress Eva, who continued to tell me I was a terrible student, but at least I wasn’t entirely at the whims of chance and luck now. When I walked into a shoot-out these days, I was no longer empty-handed.
‘Okay,’ said Eva, dropping her almost-dead cigarette on the carpet and stomping it out with the heel of her boot. ‘Let’s get this little turd.’ She opened the door, and we stepped inside.
The boy was sat in his crib, playing with a toy car.
He didn’t look much like a monster, but then I suppose that was the point.
‘Quick question, is there a way of making absolutely sure that we’re not about to force a large coin into an actual toddler’s stomach?’
‘Hm? Oh, yeah. Good point. Good idea.’
Eva staggered over the the crib and glared down at the oblivious toddler.
‘Oi. Hey! Hey, you down there, you tiny, dumb, baby thing. Are you a monster in disguise?’
‘I think you’re being a bit subtle,’ I said, as the toddler blinked in confusion at the woman glaring down at him with drool forming in the corners of her downturned mouth.
‘I’m Jacob,’ said the toddler, lifting up the toy car he was playing with. ‘I’m three years old and I like trains and… and… cars, too. But not boats.’
‘I didn’t ask for your life story, idiot,’ replied Eva, then held up the magic coin. ‘Know what this is?’
Young Jacob looked at the coin, then at Eva, then over at me. ‘I like cars,’ he said.
‘I don’t think that’s a monster,’ I said.
‘Well, forgive me, Mr Big Pants, if I don’t take your word as gospel,’ replied Eva.
Jacob began to cry and call for his mommy.
‘Now look what you’ve done,’ I said.
‘You really think this little shit machine isn’t a monster?’ said Eva.
‘Well, maybe not, I don’t know. He seems very toddler-ish. Not that I have an extensive amount of experience with toddlers.’
Eva shook her head, her face twitching between disappointment, anger, and exasperation. It was quite the display of facial gymnastics, a solid nine on the scoreboard.
‘Oh, and you’re so sure, are you?’ I said, pouting.
Eva sighed. She turned, pointed at little Jacob, and yelled some sort of gibberish that may or may not have been close to: ‘Ala Mur Kala Phot!’
The result of this string of odd words was that, for a brief flash, Jacob was no longer a small, pudgy, human toddler. Instead, he was a festering, hate-filled blob of horror that sent me rocking back on my heels.
‘What in the name of fuckity fuck was that?’ I cried.
‘I just made the little arsehole show his true colours for a moment,’ Eva replied. ‘Can we now agree it’s a fucking monster?’
I nodded rather briskly, my eyes fixed on Not-Jacob, in case the real him decided to make a leap for my sweet neck meat.
‘Use the coin,’ I said. ‘The magic coin. Now. Get it down his neck.’
‘Alright, I’m getting to it, what’s your hurry?’
‘I just think, when it comes to monster killing, sooner is better than later.’
‘The moment I start taking orders from you again is the day I put a gun in my mouth.’
‘He’ll die,’ said Jacob, which rather pulled us out of our back and forth.
‘I’m sorry?’ I said.
‘The human child,’ replied Jacob, the toy car now set aside, the pretence over.
‘Look, you little cuckoo motherfucker, the jigs up,’ said Eva, starting to roll herself a fresh smoke. ‘The parents know what you are, and we know what you are. Time to mosey on out of town or prepare to be fucked up in the most fucker-uppest way possible. Understand?’
Jacob laughed. No, laughed makes it sound somehow pleasant. The noise that came out of the thing pretending to be a toddler was in no way pleasant. It was a winding, sharp snigger that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and dance.
‘Bit of a boo-boo on your part, trying to set up shop in the home of a family of magicians,’ said Eva. ‘Might wanna do your recon a bit more thoroughly next time.’
‘Is that so?’ said Jacob.
‘Where’s the real Jacob?’ I asked.
‘In a dark, dark place, Janto,’ replied the creature, using my old name. My real name, from back when I was an all-powerful witch, and not a man employed to mop up other people’s puke.
‘How does it know my real name?’
‘Bad news travels fast, idiot,’ said Eva. ‘Okay, bored now.’
She grabbed Jacob by the nape of his neck and lifted the screeching, wriggling thing aloft, his fat legs whirring on invisible bicycle pedals.
‘This,’ said Eva, ‘is a magic coin. I’m gonna shove it right down your neck, and then it’s bye-bye baby.’
‘Why is he smiling?’ I asked.
‘Why are you smiling?’ said Eva.
Then Jacob’s face tore open and a flood of blood and gunk pouring out over Eva’s hand. It looked a little like that scene in The Shining with the elevator doors, only, you know, with a toddler’s face. So not at all similar, now I think about it. Forget that.
‘What’s it doing?’ I screamed.
‘Fucked if I know,’ replied Eva.
Suddenly, what it was doing became all too clear as the creature hiding inside its compact disguise burst from within, all giant, green limbs and gnashing teeth, and began to expand. It was like one of those inflatable rafts that are the size of a small satchel until you pull a cord and it fills an entire room.
Only this didn’t fill the entire room.
Because the entire room was too small.
There was much swearing and noise, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I ran for the door as the creature began to push against the cracking walls and ceiling as it continued its unexpected growth spurt.
‘Did you know it would do that?’ I said as I ran down the shaking stairs, Eva at my heels.
‘No, it looked smaller in the drawing.’
‘How much smaller?’
‘Well, the size of the page.’
I would have tossed back a devastating reply to that, possibly, but any further conversation was cut short as the bedroom wall crashed down and one of the beast’s limbs burst out and rolled along the staircase, knocking us both down the rest of the way. I landed on the floor with a cry, Eva thudding on top of my and expelling the wind from my lungs.
‘What’s happening?’ shouted Jacob’s mother. Jacob!’
Eva staggered up and grabbed the gawping parents. ‘Out! Fucking out!’
She shoved them toward the door and out into the garden as I regained my footing and followed, gulping down some air as I regained control of my breathing.
The cold night air greeted me as I lurched out of the house and ran past Eva and the parents, before stumbling down onto the dirt road.
‘Well, there it goes,’ said Eva.
I turned, breathing heavily, to see the creature, the cuckoo, had now grown larger than the house itself and was shaking off brick walls and roofing tiles like a chick bursting out of its eggshell.
‘Our home,’ said the wife, her voice a wailing stammer.
The cuckoo opened its giant mouth wide and roared, its many, tree-length limbs thrashing around furiously.
‘Now what?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ said Eva, pulling a can of beer from her pocket, opening it, and putting it to her mouth to catch the escaping froth, ‘that’s a good fucking question.’
‘Jacob,’ said the husband. ‘Where’s Jacob?’
The cuckoo roared again.
‘Shall we, I don’t know, attack? Or run. Maybe run?’
‘No,’ said Eva, ‘first one. Attack. We attack.’
‘Oh dear,’ I replied, not unreasonably. I raised my fist and concentrated, feeling some of the surrounding magic flow into me. I concentrated, moulding the magic to my will, and a ball of fire ignited around my hand. I looked to Eva and couldn’t help but smile.
‘Alright, no reason to look so smug about a little bit of fi—’
Eva’s sentence was cut short as a giant, green limb coiled around her waist, pulled her off the ground, and deposited her into the monster’s gaping, screaming mouth.
I looked up at the cuckoo, dumbfounded, the flame around my fist puttering out as my concentration fell away.
Eva did not answer. As she had just been eaten by a huge monster.
‘What now?’ asked the husband.
I looked at him, at his wife, then back to the house-sized monster that had just swallowed my friend.
It couldn’t be. Not Eva. She’d never go out like that. Not without a fight.
‘Eva! Get back here right now!’
The cuckoo roared as I stepped towards it’s flabby, juddering mass, the fire reigniting around my fist. Like that would scare something of that size. It was like taking on an elephant armed with a single lit match. But forward I strode, disbelief and anger momentarily pushing aside fear and reason.
‘Eva Familiar, I am Janto of the Cumbrian Coven, I created you and you will do as I say!’
‘DId you hear me, you demented cow? Get out here, right now!’
The cuckoo was still enjoying a good roar when the noise seemed to catch in whatever it had that passed for a throat.
And then it exploded.
It was disgusting.
The eruption sent me fifteen feet in the opposite direction, before depositing me onto my back. I sat up, ears ringing from the blast. I was coated, head to foot, in the creature’s blood, as well as great, wet, fat lumps of it’s flesh and innards.
Eva looked down at me, equally coated. She brushed the worst off her face, then reached into her coat and retrieved her tobacco tin.
‘What…? What happened?’
‘Hm?’ said Eva, as she rolled herself a fresh smoke with blood-damp fingers. ‘Oh, it did what I was wanting it too. Swallowed the magic coin that’d destroy it.’
‘And you too.’
‘Yeah. Third time I’ve been swallowed. It’s uncomfortable.’
I sat up to see the husband and wife retrieving their child, the real Jacob, from the wreckage of the cuckoo.
‘He was inside the monster?’
‘Yup. Don’t ask me how it works, but he’s fine. Job done.’
‘What about our house?’ asked the husband, as he and his wife stood in gore splattered ruins of their formally picture perfect cottage.
‘We saved your kid,’ said Eva.
‘Yes, but…just look at the place!’ said the wife, starting to wail and shudder with tears again.
Eva looked down at me. ‘No pleasing some fuckers, is there?’ She headed toward my car, the Uncanny Wagon, and I stood, shrugged apologetically, then hurried after her.
So, what happens next? And just who is Joseph Lake? Click the link to find out!