Written by Lucas Pralle
Narrated by Larry Anderson
“Nikolas, I’ve been waiting for you, my boy. What took you so long? You didn’t get lost did you?” said an old voice filled with stones.
Nikolas sheathed his steel at his side and fell to his knees. He looked around the shelter and contemplated the possibility that the wolves had in fact taken him in the night.
“Did you bring the key, Nikolas?” asked the man.
“I don’t understand,” gasped Nikolas, remembering that the key was tied around his neck, and pulling it out from under his shirt for the man to see. “Lily sent me,” said Nikolas.
“I know,” said the man. “Now stop kneeling there and ogling about like a newborn fawn. Come and take a seat and tell me what you’ve been up to all of these years.”
“Twenty years,” said Nikolas still on his knees. “I buried you when I was still a boy. I never returned after that. Twenty years.”
“Well, Nikolas, you’re not the only one with stories to tell. Take a seat.” The old blind hermit gestured to a seat next to his own. Nikolas stood and sat in it, not being able to take his eyes off of the hermit’s ancient face.
“How is this possible? You told me yourself that once you crossed the boundary between worlds, that once Bolfoy got hold of you, then that was it. You said that men could slay a thousand beasts and find the most enchanted and dubious treasure, but to bring someone back was impossible,” said Nikolas.
The fire cracked and the winking light from it cast transfiguring shadows throughout the shelter. Nikolas studied the esoteric lines running the man’s face, the woolly grey eyebrows, the opaque eyes, the bald head mottled with age. The hermit was even wearing the same dark brown shawl that he was wearing when Nikolas buried him.
“And those words survive unvarnished as Mt. Niedling remains a prominence. There is no way back. Even in a world such as this, no amount of waggle or vice can bring you back,” said the hermit.
“The appropriate technique involves not dying in the first place, Nikolas,” said the hermit. Nikolas sat looking at him stunned.
“But I buried you myself,” said Nikolas.
“You buried my body; a mere shell; a carriage for my soul,” said the hermit.
“And I had different accommodations prepared here, in this place, in the center of the Inner Harsh, before you were even born,” said the hermit as he opened his hands to the sky—gesturing to the shelter. “I had planned on coming here much sooner. My time had come to its end in that other place, but then, something happened that I would have never expected…one day, a child showed up at my doorstep.”
“I was a week without a mother and father, and just as long without a meal. I was too young to really understand, but I think I had made up my mind that I would just walk until it all ended. I knew about endings, having watched the witching blade take my parents,” said Nikolas.
“Those were dark times. I resolved that my relocation could wait, and that I would tend to you until you were capable. The years frittered away, and before I knew it, you were tapping upon the door of manhood. I decided that it was time,” said the hermit.
Nikolas reached over and grabbed the old man above the wrist.
“Is it really you?” asked Nikolas.
The old man looked at Nikolas with smeared eyes. “As sure as the cock crows, the moon wanes, and the tigerbadger growls,” said the old man smiling.
The wolves began to howl outside. The old man’s smile tapered.
“I thought they were going to take me last night,” said Nikolas.
“No such augury found the sphere,” said the old man as he patted Nikolas’s knee heartedly. “What has been portended is the destruction of those wolves,” the walleyed hermit opened his hand to denote the beasts baying outside, “by your hand.”
“Is that why Lily sent me?” asked Nikolas.
“Correct. And if you use the key that she provided to open the chest over there,” the hermit pointed to a chest on the far wall, “you will discover the tools essential.”
Nikolas stood up and walked over to the chest. It was constructed from a smooth, dusky wood and was about as wide as two of Nikolas’s shoulder lengths. He slipped the necklace with the silver key from around his neck, placed it into the lock, and opened the chest.
Imprisoned within the chest were various curios: no doubt accumulated over a lifetime of traveling in mysterious lands under mysterious circumstances. Nikolas eyed the glimmering spheres, swords and daggers aglow with the slightest whisper of emerald and jasmine, an eminent silver box with a lock of its own, cloth bags whose contents were entirely unknown to Nikolas, empty clear bottles and, as Nikolas sifted down into the chest, an object the size of a man’s eye that was radiating a sapphire light so bright that he jerked his hand away from it lest it burn him.
“It’s the Eye of the World, Nikolas,” said the old man sitting in his wooden chair and looking at Nikolas with glazed eyes of his own. “It glows because it is at the center of the world; the center of the Inner Harsh. You will never have trouble finding your way in the labyrinth as long as you possess that eye. Go ahead and put it in one of those satin bags and attach it to your belt.”
Nikolas peered back into the chest. Only a sliver of sapphire was emanating from the Eye, but when he picked it up again the lids opened wide to reveal a very much moving and alive eye. Nikolas almost dropped it back into the box before slipping the creature into the black satin bag and attaching it to his belt. The Eye vibrated softly on Nikolas’s hip and made springy chirping noises like small black birds and crickets.
“The Eye can see the secret world that is indistinct to humans, and now with the Eye, so can you. One more thing, Nikolas. Leave your sword and grab that bow inside the chest.”
Nikolas reached down into the box and pulled out an ashen recurve bow; a dark leather quiver containing several arrows with varying colored fletching lay next to it. Nikolas grabbed that as well.
“Elemental arrows that only that bow is capable of firing, Nikolas,” said the old man. “Use them wisely because they are quite difficult to replace. The two orange ones are fire with spikes made from the heart of a burned witch. The two blue arrows sustain the power of lightning and have heads made from stones taken from the top of Mt. Niedling struck ten times over. The two golden arrows contain the very essence of life and can put a wandering soul to rest, these are the rarest and are said to have been taken from the very quivers of the gods, but remember, they will not bring back the dead.”
“How will I know if someone is a wandering soul? Have I ever seen a wandering soul before?” asked Nikolas.
“Trust in the Eye, Nikolas,” said the old man.
Nikolas closed the chest, and they ate a spartan gruel with chopped roots and little flavor while Nikolas told stories of his own adventures over the years. The hermit laughed, smiled, and stared up at the ceiling with whitish eyes. They slept around the fire like they had so many years prior, with Nikolas on the floor and the old man in his chair. Nikolas was to set out to find and destroy the white wolves the next day.
Morning came and Nikolas left the security of the shelter. A soft white mist congealed to the floor of the Inner Harsh; its countless trees jutted up through the blanket like black sentinels and reached up to the unyielding canopy—completing the penitentiary that was the Inner Harsh. There was a howling in the distant whiteness that gave Nikolas a twitch in his spine. He reached behind him into his quiver, pulled out a blue arrow, and nocked it before stepping off into the white mist. The Eye chirped softly and vibrated at his side.
Nikolas was grateful for the Eye’s company as he edged ever deeper into the jaws of the Inner Harsh. He wasn’t sure if it was a living thing, but it did seem to possess some sort of intelligence of its own. The queer thing would bounce, jangle, hum, and chirp next to Nikolas. He imagined the Eye was having a fine time and wasn’t worried in the least about the distant howls of the white wolves. Nikolas hoped that these suppositions weren’t his own invention. And then the Eye began to hum and chirp a little tune which he remembered from his childhood. The hermit used to sing it to him before going to sleep.
It went something like this:
Down the river
Through the sea
Swim for me
When the Giver
Calls your name
Turn to flame
From the stars
Wears a crown
Down the river
Through the sea
Waits for me
Nikolas had awakened many times from a feverish nightmare as a child to the old man gently reciting the words from some forgotten place and time. He never had a problem sleeping after hearing the familiar lullaby. And here was this extraordinary eyeball singing the very same song. Nikolas slung his bow around his back and reached down for the pouch.
“I suppose that it’s time that I try you out,” Nikolas said as he grabbed the Eye in his hand. He looked back in the direction that he thought he had come from minutes prior; there was only a misty convolution. The Eye chirped and whined like a newborn chick as he pulled it out and cupped it with both hands before opening them in front of his face.
Eye’s dark lids were closed.
“C’mon now,” said Nikolas. “This isn’t the time to be shy.” The white wolves howled off in the mist. Eye slowly loosed, revealing a brilliant blue hue that Nikolas could see his own reflection in. He smiled and Eye began chirping and buzzing. “Now which way back to the center?” asked Nikolas.
He held Eye up in the palm of his right hand and rotated in a circle; when he reached a point to his left, Eye cast a sapphire light so vigorous that it illuminated and melted the white haze away in that direction.
“Wow,” said Nikolas. “Good job, Eye. Now how do I see what you see?”
He held Eye up to his face. Eye let out a small chirp, unfolded its black lids and, from the chasm of its pupil which stretched to lands and times unknown, thrust a dense unearthly barb into the center of Nikolas’s very own, very mundane eye—tearing it loose from his head with an aqueous pop. Nikolas screamed for mercy to come on down from the Giver, or from whomever was listening, and was rolling around on the ground and holding his face.
The pain departed from Nikolas before the screaming did, and when he finally realized this, he also became cognizant of a new thing existing within his own head, where his eye used to be. It felt cool inside the socket as it squirmed excitedly in its new home. Nikolas opened his eyes and stood.
A torrent of bright light doused all of Nikolas’s senses—the singular fixture inside his being was the desolate beating of his own heart; otherwise a white abyss. But then the light began to fade, and Nikolas could once again hear the remote brushing of branches in the canopy overhead and the unnatural howl and yip of the white wolves; then something more. Footsteps approaching undaunted.
Nikolas had scarcely regained any vision. He could only discern indeterminate shapes and shadows in the distance. With sweat slipping from his brow, Nikolas reached down and probed desperately at his feet for the bow he had dropped. The footsteps continued unperturbed; actually speeding up. Nikolas found the bow, stood, nocked an arrow, and aimed it blindly and drawn at the center of the incoming danger.
“Not another step,” said Nikolas, feigning command of the situation, and vision. The intruder slowed and finally stopped. In reality Nikolas could see a dark mass where the figure stood. “This arrow will push the power of lightning into your head and split and burn you like the sturdiest of trees have endured for time immemorial.” Nikolas wasn’t sure if he had a lightning arrow nocked, but he imagined that the threat of one would be enough to thwart at least a human adversary. He held the serious weight of the string at his cheek.
“And what if my head is already filled with all sorts of lightning,” asked a man’s disembodied voice.
“Then this will smart even more. Just because a man is made of something doesn’t mean that he is impervious to it. The tribes of the southern plains craft both blade and arrow from the cracked bones of their fallen enemies, and I never met a soul that wouldn’t prefer falling to a steel blade or tip over those ghastly creations,” said Nikolas as he redoubled his efforts to keep his arm steady and cocked by his eye. He could now make out some basic details in the man’s face that stood about ten feet in front of him: dark, they were all very dark. There was a stiff silence before the man spoke again.
“I’ve come too far and I’ve endured too much to stop. Either cleave me with your lightning or let me pass. I will fight you until my dying breath and beyond if need be,” said the man with a share of grit which hadn’t existed moments prior.
Nikolas did not yield. His hand trembled and his fingers ached where they were wrapped around the string. “What’s your name?” asked Nikolas. “And what’s your business here in the Inner Harsh?”
“My name is Sergei Ovonoptop, and I was given this key a month ago by a mysterious man and promised to be reunited with my wife.” Nikolas could see the silver glint of the key when the man pulled it from under his shirt. “I was instructed to bring this to the center of the Inner Harsh. Do you know how to get there?”
Nikolas lowered the bow and eased the tension out of it. This appeared to be a normal man standing before him. The man’s face was thin and filled with a billowing black beard flecked with silver. He had small muscles twisted and taut like dead grass. He wore good leather clothing, but it was worn down to shreds in some places and was too big in all others. As threadbare as the man seemed, he wasn’t inconsequential; Nikolas could see toughness in the man’s dark eyes.
“You said that the key was given to you by a man?” Nikolas thought of his encounter with Lily in the desert. If she had the power to transform into an owl, then she probably had the capacity to turn into a man. None of it made any sense to Nikolas at this point.
“Yes, back in Wayfare,” said Sergei.
Nikolas had passed through Wayfare on his way through the Outer Harsh. It was one of the many unassuming villages that dotted that area. “Wayfare, you say? I know of it,” said Nikolas.
The man’s appearance visibly lightened. “Have you ever heard of the Ovonoptops?” asked Sergei. “We were famous leatherworkers in Wayfare.”
“I have not. I was only passing through,” said Nikolas. “Tell me more about this mysterious man and how you got the key back in Wayfare.”
“There had been a sickness. My wife said that she was feeling a bit light-headed after coming in from hanging laundry. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Kaneyetev was seven months pregnant, so these periods of discomfort were relatively common. By the time I closed up the leatherworking shop, she was running a fever. I summoned the doctor, but it was too late. They both didn’t make it. Or at least I thought they didn’t.”
“The key,” said Nikolas. He was beginning to grow impatient with Sergei’s emotional detour.
“The mysterious man showed up at my doorstep the next day and said that he could reunite me with my child and Kanyetev. At first I didn’t believe him, but then he pulled a magic box from his pocket and unlocked it with this silver key,” Sergei held up the key, “and told me to look inside. I saw my Kanyetev. She was doing laundry just like before she got sick. I tried to call to her, but it seemed like she could not hear me. The man closed the box, locked it with the key again, and put it back into his pocket. He placed this key in my hand again and said that if I met him at the center of the Inner Harsh, I would see her again. Then he left. I set out for the Inner Harsh the next day.”
“What did this man look like?” asked Nikolas.
“He was a big man—almost a foot taller than you or I; his great big hands were twice the size as mine.”
“Young, old?” asked Nikolas.
“Young. A full grown man, but young. He was dressed formally, with a nice dark velvet hat and a nice coat. Bald. He didn’t have any hair when he took off his hat. He was quite pale too. Do you know of him?”
“I fear I don’t know much of anything these days,” said Nikolas as he began scanning the murky white harsh and trying to find the way back to the shelter. He didn’t know how to follow the Eye, now that it was in his own head. “I’ll try to get us back to the center; we can ask the old hermit about all of this.”
Sergei grabbed Nikolas’s arm. “You’ve been to the center? Was there a woman there?”
Nikolas shook his grip off. “I have, and there was no woman that I could see.”
“But there is someone there that might know something about her. Follow me.”
Sergei nodded and followed close behind Nikolas as he walked, peering through the thick white mist and trees for any sign of the shelter. There was none, so they walked on.
“We need to get back and regroup before the wolves find us.”
“Oh, I’m sure the wolves know exactly where we are,” said Sergei behind Nikolas.
“Why do you say that?” asked Nikolas skeptically.
“Because they’re how I found you.”
Nikolas turned and grabbed the front of Sergei’s leather shirt. The thin man let out a bent gasp. “What do you mean by that?” asked Nikolas, nearly picking Sergei up off of his feet.
Both men’s eyes were wide. Sergei caught sight of Nikolas’s one blue eye and was seemingly drawn into it. It was if a tigerbadger had a paw poised over his head; he shrunk under Nikolas.
“I didn’t mean anything by it. I just meant that I lost my way and I was desperate. I had spent a lifetime in my workshop back in Wayfare. I didn’t know anything about surviving out in the wilderness—much less the Inner Harsh. I barely made it up to the top of Mt. Niedling, and when I did, the wolves attacked me.”
“The wolves attacked you and you survived it?” said Nikolas as he spitefully dispelled Sergei from his grip.
“Not attack exactly. They just showed up when I reached the other side of Mt. Niedling. They roughed me up; dragged me through the dirt and across the rocks a little, and tore my satchel with all of my supplies away from me. I thought I was going to die,” said Sergei.
“And why didn’t you?”
“I guess because I didn’t have anything left to lose.”
Nikolas looked back at Sergei for a moment before moving on. There was still that aura of quiet toughness or resilience around him. Sergei walked with his head down.
“I followed the wolves’ tracks down the mountain and into the Inner Harsh. I drank what water was near the path and ate what food I could scavenge, but I never strayed from the path, and I hardly slept. I stumbled through the blackness of night toward their howling and yipping—yelling for them to take me. They wouldn’t.”
Sergei continued to look at the ground pensively. “I need to take a moment to figure something out,” said Nikolas. “Stay close, but give me some space. I need to think for a bit.”
Sergei nodded, and Nikolas stepped a few paces off from him. He had no theories on how they were going to find their way back, but he knew walking around aimlessly in the mist wasn’t going to bring them any closer. Nikolas imagined that the charity the wolves had afforded both of them getting to the heart of the Inner Harsh had run out now that they were actually there.
Nikolas closed his eyes, and there in the untroubled darkness was Lily.