Written by Lucas Pralle
Narrated by Larry Anderson
Spend enough time with drunken old men in a tavern, or around the warm comfort of a campfire in the Tenth Kingdom, and inevitably you will hear a tale about the daring treasure hunter Nikolas Veshinski. It was at the first locale, sitting at a card table, where I heard the story that I will tell you. I will try to be as faithful to the words that were passed to me, as a man who was trying to drown out the evening’s loses can be.
I suppose a brief introduction for Nikolas is in order. An orphaned child, Nikolas had one day appeared at the doorstep of a blind hermit and been taken under his care until his death a decade later. During this time, the hermit told stories of the wonders which exist in the kingdom and impressed all types of special wisdom upon young Nikolas. When the hermit died, Nikolas was a man—one who had patiently waited for the day that he could see what was told in the hermit’s stories firsthand. And he did.
In the east, Nikolas probed through billowing black caves filled with shimmering stalactites and luminescent fish to find the lost sword of Galgemeth. Nikolas rode across the great southern plains hunting tigerbadgers the size of a bear with his bow. Proceeds from the pelts paid for enough whisky, women, and supplies to get him to his next adventure. In the north, he spent months under the exacting heat of the desert sun, riding headstrong camels between precious oases, sharing stories and wine with the rugged people of the sands, beneath a blanket of stars. It was during one of these encounters that our story begins—that, and the appearance of a mysterious woman.
She rode into camp by horse, in the late dusk, against the infinite horizon with its hypnotic emerald glow. The men watched tensely as the bizarre silhouette of the mounted visitor bobbed lazily through the wintry desert wind, and long black tendrils of cloth flapped around her. A man with two teeth and one eye grabbed Nikolas by the arm and leaned over as if to impart a life-giving secret.
With sticky hot breath he said, “That, my friend, is Lily of Northfell.”
Nikolas watched curiously as the woman methodically dismounted her horse and tied it next to the others. She had a certain grace about her that Nikolas had never seen before. She approached the fire that the men were all sitting around and slowly unraveled the dusty cloth around her head to reveal large brown eyes outlined with a thick line of green malachite.
The scabrous man redoubled his grip on Nikolas’ arm and continued, “She might look like the greatest treasure that you’ve ever seen, but she’s more like a venomous cobra. Twisted around Bolfoy’s staff and the dark arts she is. Some say she’s over two hundred years old!”
Nikolas watched as Lily untied her long silken hair and it fell innocently around her matchless face. Unbreakable men scrambled around to the opposite side of the fire, and she sat delicately on a newly vacated sack of grain. She made a minimal shooing motion with her slight hand and the men abandoned the fire completely—all except Nikolas, of course.
“So what grand treasure is the legendary Badger Man of the southern plains after these days?” she asked Nikolas with a smooth honeyed voice. Nikolas had gained a bit of a reputation from his tigerbadger days.
“Nothing in particular; I’m sightseeing. You know, enjoying the view.” Nikolas smiled and motioned up to the limitless heavens with his powerful hands.
It was a lie. Strapped to the back of his leg, inside his boot, Nikolas had a map that supposedly revealed the location of the legendary Ruby of Alten—lost for hundreds of years after the siege of Castle Jade.
Lily’s impenetrable eyes cast back the beating light of the fire. “Sightseeing,” leered Lily. She wasn’t convinced. “Tell me Badger Man, what is the greatest treasure that you have ever recovered?”
Nikolas stared into the fire, thinking. There had been many over the years—jewels that shone brighter than the most brilliant star, daggers that had slain tyrannous rulers and paved the way for more despots, paintings holding the power to move worlds. There were so many that Nikolas could not pick just one. He had been asked the same question many times, and he had provided a different answer on just as many occasions, but for the first time, under the desert stars with the beautiful and supposedly treacherous Lily, he felt compelled to get to the heart of the matter.
“I don’t know,” admitted Nikolas as he looked into Lily’s enchanting eyes. “I suppose the actual objects aren’t what I’m really after. It’s the trouble getting them. I can tell you much more about the time that I had to accept my own death, give myself to the gods, than I can about any treasure that I have ever recovered.”
“Is that your greatest treasure then? Accepting your own death?” she asked.
Nikolas contemplated the idea for a moment before answering. “No.”
“Then what is?”
“Living, I suppose. Through your own death you can live. It’s a combination of events and feelings. Constant motion. The triumph of a success along with the despair of a failure. Cold rain and sweltering heat. A jagged cut. The moments and objects that I could pinpoint are merely waypoints of a much larger scheme. They are how I exist in the world. Anything else would just be ethereal.”
“You’re a wise man,” said Lily.
“I learned from the best,” said Nikolas as he studied the changing depth and color of the burning embers in the fire.
“What if I told you about a treasure that surpassed anything that you’ve encountered before? Your greatest challenge. The waypoint of waypoints,” said Lily.
“How would I know that it really exists? That it’s where you say it is?” Nikolas thought about the fear that had gripped the other men just by being in proximity to Lily. Fear like that was the result of potent action.
“How do you know that the Ruby of Alten is where your map says it is?” asked Lily. Nikolas tried to conceal his astonishment. There was no way for her to know why he was there. He hadn’t told a soul.
“Because I have cross-referenced multiple sources. They all point to the same place,” said Nikolas.
“They’re all lying,” said Lily.
“And how do you know that?”
“Because I have the Ruby of Alten,” said Lily, as she reached into a satchel sitting on the ground next to her and pulled out one of the most sought after objects of the modern era. Lily held it up to the light of the fire. It was the size of a chicken egg. Rose-colored light cascaded around the camp—illuminating the faces of men peering surreptitiously out from their tents and the backs of camels and horses. After a few hushed murmurs in the camp, Lily put the ruby away.
“Proof enough?” asked Lily, not concealing her amusement in the least.
“I suppose so,” said Nikolas. He tried to feign a cool attitude. In reality he felt quite exposed.
“Now, back to the real treasure,” said Lily. She reached back into her satchel and revealed a small silver key in the palm of her hand. “What do you know about the Inner Harsh?” she asked as she handed it to Nikolas.
“Labyrinth of the soul. I’ve never met a man that has returned from the Inner Harsh, and I’ve never met a man that has met a man that has,” said Nikolas as he turned the silver key over in his hand.
“Perhaps you should have taken the time to ask a woman during your travels,” said Lily.
“Perhaps,” said Nikolas. Although he wasn’t quite sure what Lily qualified as at this point. She reached over and placed her hand upon Nikolas’s key bearing hand. Her touch was like a freshly fallen leaf.
“Take this key into the heart of the Inner Harsh, the very center of the soul, and you will find your waypoint, Nikolas Veshinski,” said Lily before removing her hand and standing. Lily stood and picked up her satchel, wrapped herself in her vast black cloak, untied her steed, and mounted it.
Nikolas looked down at the key in his hand. “Wait!” yelled Nikolas.
Lily didn’t respond. She simply turned her horse and began drifting into the open desert night.
“How will I know when I have arrived at the center of the Inner Harsh or if I’m even going in the right direction?” yelled Nikolas after her, not even knowing if she could hear him at that point. There was no answer, and Nikolas watched as Lily faded away with the grace and will of the waning moon above her.
The others never came out to join Nikolas near the fire that night, and not a word was said in the pre-dawn morning as they dismantled camp and packed their horses. As much as Nikolas hated to admit it, he had been left with no other choice than to travel west to the Inner Harsh and to perform this task for Lily. With the men of the camp watching warily, Nikolas set off for the Inner Harsh, the labyrinth of the soul.
He rode through the searing heat of the desert and out of the revitalizing air of the Outer Harsh. Scorched sand turned to stark vegetation turned to vigorous green forest with discreet villages strewn about, reaching to the base of Mt. Niedling with her untroubled blue peaks. Nikolas pressed on through all of this: enduring soaking rains, wintry nights, and the occasional disagreeable creature or bandit—business as usual for Nikolas; subtracting the element of Lily’s bidding, of course.
There was no sign of Lily, although Nikolas couldn’t help but wonder if she was somehow with him or watching him. There was a slight touch to the back of his neck, a twinge of something in his gut that told Nikolas that a presence existed. He had awakened to find the ivory colored face of an owl soundlessly watching from above on a few occasions, and when he would call out to it, the creature would sail into the cockcrow sky and disappear like a wraith.
Up through the spread forest lanes of the Outer Harsh and over the stern flinty face of Mt. Niedling, Nikolas labored until he reached the other side and descended into the yawning and arcane Inner Harsh. This was new territory for Nikolas.
Flatter than the southern plains, the Inner Harsh was a continual labyrinth of tall evergreens, with their canopy high overhead, and just their straight and narrow trunks aligned row after row. The forest floor was a shadowy enigma with only spasmodic shafts of light delivering any sense of variation and movement.
Nikolas could see an unnerving ill-lit mile one moment, and on the next step, he could only see a few cramped feet. His perspective changed constantly, and what he thought he knew a moment earlier was rendered obsolete in an instant. Nikolas had no idea where he was going and he believed that he was seeing unknown shapes and visages down these dark lanes and in the corners of his vision with increasing regularity. They were getting closer. The Inner Harsh was closing in on Nikolas.
At mid-depth, there were the obscure contours of a woman sketched in the inky gray light of a protracted path. Nikolas called to it, his voice touching and echoing from a million contemptuous black trunks, and in a mounting frenzy he ran to it only to find a sickening mix of branches and knots adorning the trunk of a tree. There was another flash of something in the distance, and as the sweeping pall of night lulled the precious sanctums of light piercing through the canopy into darkness, a merciless and growing howl grew.
Then, there was another howl behind Nikolas, quite near.
And yet another to his left. The white wolves of the Inner Harsh were surrounding Nikolas and advancing.
They were legendary, their stories passed since the beginning of time. It was said that the ghostly wolves were trapped souls. Slaves of the god of the underworld Bolfoy, they were doomed to wander the Tenth Kingdom and to search unceasingly for victims in their sleep and deliver them to their master.
Even the old blind hermit had warned Nikolas not to go to sleep with tribulation hanging over his head, lest the white wolves snatch his soul up in the night, the boy never to wake among the living again. It was a disconcerting enough tale when Nikolas was a child, now it had reached a new level entirely, and as the spectral voices of the wolves called to him from the darkness, Nikolas reckoned that he had more tribulation than he cared to handle. He built a fire and waited with blade in hand for the worst.
Nikolas awakened to a face without color staring down at him, one so unvarying that it might have been carved from ivory or ice. It was a new day and the air was crisp and cool. A pile of ashes was all that remained of Nikolas’s fire, and the howling of the wolves had ceased. Nikolas lay on his back and watched the owl for any sign of movement. There was none. Its large motionless pupils were rimmed with brown not unfamiliar to Nikolas. He called to it.
“Lily! Why have you brought me here? To have the white wolves take me? I don’t know where I am going,” yelled Nikolas. He sat up and pulled the leather necklace holding the silver key out from under his shirt and held it up to the owl. “I don’t know where to take this. By the gods, Lily, if you wish me dead, then take my life. If you wish for me to carry on, then I need your help. I need a sign…I need something!”
Whoosh! The great white owl swooped down from its perch and flew at Nikolas with such speed and power that it knocked him on his back again. Nikolas flipped over on his belly double quick, and watched as the white bird flew straight down a dark, narrow lane until hitting a patch of light streaming down through the thickset canopy and blasting up through the opening. Moments later the owl swung through the next hole. Nikolas began to run after it not daring to divert his eyes from the direction the owl was flying. The owl quickly disappeared and so did the forest.
Nikolas had reached the precise center of the Inner Harsh. Before him stood a dome-shaped shelter of some sort in a small clearing. The outer covering of the shelter was a collection of animal hides pulled taut around a frame.
He cautiously approached the structure, circled it, and reached out to touch the primitive likenesses of men, caribou, and wolves burned into the hides that wrapped around the shelter in peculiar bands. He called out, but there was no answer. On one side of the structure was a man-sized door flap. Nikolas held his steel at the ready and opened the flap. He never could have prepared for what he saw next.