Written by Lucas Pralle
Narrated by Larry Anderson
“What the fuck do you mean you don’t have my account on file?”
“Ma’am, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t swear at me. We’re trying our—” said a frail male voice on the other side of Lily’s cell phone.
“I would appreciate it if you found my account and the fifty-seven fucking dollars I spent on a pair of pants from your catalogue,” said Lily as she drove her ’98 white Toyota Corolla through the university area in Madison, Wisconsin—ten miles an hour over the speed limit.
Students were pouring out of the campus buildings and flooding the sidewalks, bike lanes, and—
Lily ploughed her brakes into the floorboard, and her little white car let out a very embarrassing shriek before stopping. The green and blue mermaid bobble head on her dash spasmed and bobbed furiously with its little Barbie doll head as a thousand UW students rubbernecked at her shabby white car.
“Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to calm down,” said the remarkably calm and infuriating voice on the line.
A freshman girl wearing a tight red “Get Bucky” T-shirt with the badger mascot on the front of it nervously passed in front of Lily’s white car while wheeling her bike. The stoplight was red, Lily felt like an ass.
“Fuck you,” said Lily before hanging the phone up and throwing it in the passenger seat beside her. She flashed a quick communicative wave to the girl to let her know she wasn’t deranged or drunk. The girl walked on and the rest of the UW campus did too.
Lily looked at the phone and stifled an impulse to pick it up, hit redial, and pick another fight. The cute purple flare jeans she had ordered were two weeks late, payment and no delivery, and no idea where the jeans were. Lily figured that’s what she got for listening to her mother and ordering from a catalogue over the phone, not using the internet like every other sane consumer in the 21st century; Lily had only agreed to it because she felt like she was bonding with Diane and, at the time, the whole outdated ordering process seemed like a novel concept, not a fucking nightmare.
The light finally turned green and the little white Corolla spurred on with a decrepit bellow. Lily had a date to attend.
Well, not exactly a date where you arrived dressed, smiled and batted your eyes, and brilliantly simulated interest in statements like: My dad has a boat/I’m just looking for the right woman to settle down with/What’s your favorite movie/I enjoy running along the lake and watching the sunrise in the morning; which roughly translated to: I’m a douche bag/I have no real aspirations of my own/I saw in a movie that if we like the same movie we’re supposed to have children/I’m an overachiever.
Lily withstood such poisonous encounters once every month or two; she generally gave the gutsy guy in the grocery store a chance if they asked her out—she respected that. What she didn’t respect were the hollow dreams and fictitious pathways smashed into their brains that they so eagerly and continually recited.
The worst part was that it wasn’t even their fault. These notions had at least thousands of years of tonnage anchoring them to the toes of goddamn God Himself and seemed to be as immeasurable as an ocean or distant bright star; “seemed” being the key word, because when the cracks did show and things didn’t follow the itinerary, people lost their fucking minds, like Diane did when Lily’s father Gary left her for another man in Washington state. Ooops, didn’t see that one coming. And because of all of this iron-willed, fallacious thinking about what was right, who you should fuck, what you should do with your life, what you should put into your body, Lily had to endure a shelling of doe-eyed breadwinners and seed carriers, a mother who compulsively shopped in outdated clothing catalogues, and a father that couldn’t face his own family and didn’t even bother to send a card anymore.
What a crock of shit, but what did she know, she worked at Staples.
That’s where Lily had originally met Sergei, her date. In most civilized circles Sergei would have been deemed dangerous upon immediate inspection. Luckily for Lily, she was neither civilized nor a circle.
Lily had been diligently wasting time stocking pens for an hour when she first laid eyes on the scraggly dark-haired Sergei coming down the aisle toward her. She first imagined that his name was Paul, a very burnt out Paul—his mannerisms pegged him at twenty, but his face hidden behind his scraggly beard and gaunt muscles indicated at least fifty—but when she checked him out at the front of the store his card had said Sergei. Lily thought that Sergei was a Russian or at least eastern European name, but he sounded more like a cracked out honky from Texas. Maybe he was into bath salts or meth? Either way, he was interesting, and Lily looked forward to his visit every Friday at 3pm. It was like clockwork, and it had been going on for the past year.
Sergei was into office supplies. Every month he’d buy all sorts of clips, markers, glues, paper, scissors, rulers—there never seemed to be any consistency to the orders other than that he needed a lot of them. Lily figured that office supplies were much more innocuous than other items. She could have worked in a cutlery depository or a chemical boutique. And what do you know, Sergei the cracked out honky finally asked Lily if she would like a cup of coffee.
As Lily drove toward the coffee shop, she decided that she probably wouldn’t like to fuck Sergei. It wasn’t completely out of the question, but she was in it for more of the intriguing wildlife than anything. Maybe he had a big dick. Lily wished she had a big dick on occasion. One time she ran around her mother’s house with a gigantic red pepper between her legs, knocking over a lamp, boffing her mother’s stupid catalogues, and snapping it off on a mounted horse’s head (it had been Gary’s), but when Diane began crying during this episode, as much as Lily reveled the act of fucking with her mother, she had felt bad enough to actually apologize. She still wanted a big dick, occasionally.
Lily pulled the white Corolla up to the coffee shop, parked, and entered. Discerning Sergei in an environment as eclectic as a Madison coffee shop was quite easy; his raven hair and feral beard made him look like he should be drinking Mad Dog 20/20, definitely not the vanilla latte that he was so delicately holding against his lips with pinky aloft—more like an honored guest in a certain Lewis Carroll novel, thought Lily, and no, she wasn’t thinking about the one where he fucks children. Then there was the jacket.
Lifted from the rigor mortis-afflicted corpse of Louis Jolliet or bought from a nomadic renaissance fair for a lot of money was Lily’s best guess. The jacket was a gorgeous sunshine wheat with cool tassels swinging from the underside of the arms. Lily smiled when she noticed all of the hipsters in the coffee shop green-eyed-drooling at Sergei’s garb. He even had leather boots to match his jacket. His pants were ashen. It was 80 degrees outside. Lily approached the table.
“Hey,” said Lily. She watched Sergei’s dark brown eyes, which were keenly focused on the white-swirled surface of his latte like it was a soothsaying cauldron, slowly rise to meet hers.
He emphatically put the coffee down on the table and, with a whipped cream frosted mustache, said, “Hi!”
Lily sat down across from him and ordered a coffee. “So what’s with the getup? I like your jacket and your boots. I think they’re really cool. Aren’t you hot in all of that?”
“You get used to it,” said Sergei, unconcerned, before taking another drink of his latte.
“Where did you get that stuff?”
“I made it.”
“That’s amazing! Where did you learn how to do that?” said Lily.
“My father taught me,” said Sergei.
“Does he still do it?”
“No, he died when I was young. Right after he taught me.”
“Oh. So what do you want to do after coffee? Why did you ask me to come here?” asked Lily, a little upfront, but she was like that.
Sergei didn’t betray an extraneous twitch, unruffled. “I need your help,” he said before taking another sip from his coffee.
“Well, lead the way, mountain man, or whatever you are,” said Lily, crossing her arms under her breasts and leaning back in her chair with a roguish grin. Her mother would be so pissed if she knew what she was up to.
Nikolas opened his eyes. The tyrannical white mist was gone and Nikolas could once again see into the mirror arcade that was the Inner Harsh. “Now, that’s more like it,” said Nikolas, satisfied.
He squinted and looked down the veiled lanes for any sign of the way, or better yet, the center itself. Nikolas figured that it couldn’t be that far off, but this was the Inner Harsh, and certain rules of logic didn’t exactly work here. Nikolas turned to Sergei.
“You see anything?” asked Nikolas.
Sergei turned his ragged head a bit like he was looking, perhaps feeling a bit guilty for not looking in the first place. “Nothing,” said Sergei.
Nikolas crushed the irritation building in his gut. A lifetime of adventuring and surviving had taught him that frustration could be as toxic as the most venomous bite in these circumstances; best to keep one’s cool.
“Well at least the fog has lifted,” said Nikolas, choosing a more optimistic subject.
“What fog?” asked Sergei, crinkling his brow in confusion.
“The white mist that didn’t consent to me seeing more than a spear’s length in front of my face a moment prior.”
“Hmmm. I’m not sure I understand what you are saying. Perhaps it’s your one eye, the blue one; pardon me for saying, but it does look quite peculiar,” said Sergei, crossing his arms and legs in one stroke like a giant insect.
Nikolas was ready to get back to the shelter. He took a closer look at his surroundings, and just beyond Sergei’s muddy ear, he spotted something. A silver, waxen speck was ricocheting around Sergei’s greased black hair like a magnetic fairy. Nikolas pushed past him and smiled.
“Lily,” said Nikolas quietly. The owl was dauntlessly wavering through the canopy and weaving through the porous rampart of trees in the distance.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” asked Sergei.
“C’mon, follow me,” said Nikolas. “This way to the center.” They both took off in a light trot after the owl, with Sergei following close behind Nikolas toward the first real test of the Inner Harsh.
The wolves revealed themselves. “Bawoooo,” howled the first one as it stepped out, directly in the path of Nikolas and Sergei. It was monstrous. Amber eyes rimmed in lacuna black flashed, and a terrifying devil’s butcher grin exhibited hundreds of impossibly straight and sharp fangs cloaking the passageway to hell itself. It was wintry murder; and as the wolf let out another ear-shattering howl and shook its guiltless and wretched white fur, Nikolas nocked an arrow on his bow.
“Stay close and watch our back and flanks,” he commanded Sergei as he slowly back-pedaled until they were touching. Delirious howls and whispers seethed through the bracken trees and swirled, licking at the flesh of the two men like flame to a spit. There was no telling how many wolves there were, but by the gods, Nikolas wasn’t going to let this one in front of him leave his sight. He drew the bow.
“They’re getting closer!” yelled Sergei over the schizophrenic doomsday choir enveloping them.
“Stand fast, on my signal; we’re going to make a break for it.”
“What’s the signal?”
Nikolas released the string and the blue fletched bolt drove through the bayonet grin of the wolf and straight down its throat. The wolf’s flashing amber eyes burst into a blue fervent, and a dense pillar of lightning thrust down through the canopy overhead, eviscerating the wolf and the trees around it into burnt nothingness. A ferocious crack sounded as the hot expanding air exploded around them.
“Run!” yelled Nikolas.
They surged forward, kicking through the ashen ruins of the wolf. Cold-steel electricity bloomed on their boots and made their teeth chatter as the wild-pitched raging screamed close behind. Nikolas frantically nocked another arrow as they ran. The trees passed as a steady turbid stream. Insufferable phantoms lurked in its depths. Another wolf snapped at Sergei’s feet like a steel trap.
“Heeeelp!” yelled Sergei as he almost fell over himself.
Nikolas looked back over his shoulder. He couldn’t possibly take the shot in time. He grabbed the bow in his left hand, turned and faced Sergei, grabbed him by the front of his collar, and sent them both flying through the air in a headlong dive.
Time slowed and Nikolas watched the look of terror and betrayal in Sergei’s eyes until they finally hit the ground, sprawling. The wolf passed over them, stretched out in a death-dealing attack. Its mouth was agape, and Nikolas could feel its breath on his face as it passed, cold as death.
The wolf hit the ground and tumbled in a blind wrath that neither man had ever seen matched before Nikolas drove a golden bolt through the wolf’s ear and out the back of its head. The fiend let out a cry like a baby, and cooed and gurgled as it melted into the forest floor.
Nikolas picked Sergei up and they continued on. The clearing and the shelter were up ahead.
Inner Harsh SE1: EP3 Commentary by Lucas Pralle