Written by Lucas Pralle
Narrated by Larry Anderson
Back in the Inner Harsh – Flux
Nikolas began throwing up. The crude brown stew that he had eaten for supper with the old hermit the previous night pushed itself up from inside and splattered on the forest floor. The dream was real.
Nikolas’s unchanged eye streamed with tears, while his new one remained cool and pristine like the gem that it wasn’t. A rapid pressure closed on his elbow. He looked over and saw that it was Sergei trying to pick him up. The wolves were coming in for another attack.
“Let’s go!” yelled Sergei, his voice rising above the crushing howls around them. It came from the same place that the toughness did, the one that Nikolas had noticed when he had first met the man.
Nikolas began to run with the help of Sergei, and as he became more aware and sure-footed, he imagined that he would have been a dead man moments prior without his newfound companion. Or was he already a dead man? Nikolas raised his head.
The old hermit was at the door of the shelter, motioning and, Nikolas assumed, yelling for them to come in. He could only hear the spinning din of the wolves. Would the beasts follow them into the shelter?
Sergei pushed Nikolas through the door past the old man and followed. The hermit closed the flap, and the wild howling and snarling going on outside was hushed.
“You made it, thank the spheres,” said the old man as he looked in the general direction of Sergei. “Who’s this?” The howling and mad yapping continued outside, muffled. They were circling the shelter, possibly looking for a weakness, thought Nikolas.
Sergei stood straight and said, “My name is Sergei Ovanoptop from Way—”
A wolf burst in through the door, knocking the old hermit to the ground, almost into the fire. Nikolas nocked a blue arrow and was about to blast the fiend into oblivion before the old man yelled stop!
“Stop, my boy, stop, stop, stop! I’m not sure what you’re up to exactly, but I imagine that I can take a good guess at it, and it would not end well for us.”
Meanwhile, Nikolas watched as the wolf noticed the hermit, ceased its mad charade, and stood silently in the doorway. It went from being a fierce beast to someone that knew that they were in a lot of trouble in an instant. The old man sprung up from the ground and pointed at the wolf.
“And you! You should know better than this. Just wait until I tell your employer what you have done! And don’t think for a moment that I won’t. The recklessness!” The old man was seething. Nikolas had only seen him in such a fury once prior.
As a child, Nikolas’s curiosity had driven him to sift through the old man’s mysterious vials that he kept locked up. He had broken one and spilled it on the floor, leaving it to evaporate into nothingness. Nikolas couldn’t bring himself to speak to the hermit for two days after that episode, and now the ferocious white wolf in front of him had his head bowed in similar shame.
“Get out!” yelled the hermit.
The wolf disappeared out the door and the flap closed behind him. Nikolas and Sergei watched the hermit incredulously as the man shook his head, muttered something to himself, and sat down in his ancient, rustic chair.
“The situation is getting severe indeed,” said the old man. “The play is getting out of hand; the audacity; the selfishness; that’s why I need your help, Nikolas. Sergei, was it?”
Sergei stepped forward again. “Yes, from Wayfare.”
Nikolas stretched his arm in front of Sergei to silence him. “I need answers. Something happened, so much happened, and I don’t understand any of it.”
The old man nodded silently. His milky eyes reflected the light of the fire.
Nikolas continued, “And the wolves, we barely escaped with our lives out there. I wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for Sergei.”
“Stoke the fire and take a seat,” said the old man.
They obliged. Nikolas couldn’t help but ask more questions.
“Lily,” said Nikolas.
“Yes, Lily. It always begins with Lily,” said the old hermit.
“She gave me the key and sent me here. She led me here, in the shape of, I think anyway, of an owl.” The old man nodded in agreement. “What does she have to do with this? How do you know Lily?”
“Lily is autonomous,” said the old man. “She does what she wants, what she needs to do. It hasn’t always been that way, but the situation has become serious, and we have a common enemy.”
“A common enemy?” asked Nikolas.
“Grassman. Have you heard of him?” asked the old man.
Nikolas thought about all of the old legends he had encountered during his travels. It was difficult because his mind was spinning from everything that had occurred, but he couldn’t recall any legend regarding something or somebody called Grassman.
“No, I’ve never heard—” said Nikolas.
“I have,” interrupted Sergei. “He’s a shapeshifting evil that does nothing but torture the living.”
“That’s an apt description if I ever heard one,” said the old man, raising his bushy eyebrows. “And it seems that he’s somehow gained a substantial amount of power and is using that power to influence and produce things previously unattainable.”
“Does he have anything to do with the wolves?” asked Nikolas.
“Yes and no. The wolves have always existed, and as far as I know, they always will. They perform a function for Bolfoy—well they did perform a function for Bolfoy. I’m not so sure who they work for anymore. That little episode with the wolf coming in here shouldn’t have been possible. Arrangements have been made, and that wolf was in breach of those arrangements. He should have evaporated into the wind the moment he stepped foot in this shelter.”
“Arrangements?” asked Nikolas. The old hermit was so familiar to him, and yet, there was something very different about him since his return, but Nikolas couldn’t place it.
“Grassman is influencing the wolves somehow, and they seem to be growing in numbers,” said the old man. Nikolas wasn’t lost to the fact that the hermit had dodged his question. “I think they’re preparing for an attack of some sort, and are doing their best to keep me in here.” The old hermit gestured to the shelter they were sitting in.
“So can Lily shapeshift too?” asked Nikolas.
“Among other things,” said the old man.
“What does she have to do with Grassman then?”
“Grassman is Lily’s brother.”
“I had another dream last night, Luland,” said the young girl as she sat in a wooden chair and swung her feet nervously under her. She was wearing a violet dress that was carelessly twisted around her body. The hemline was muddy from catching frogs earlier that day. The chamber was dark, save for the bright green vial of liquid that Luland was holding up to his face and examining. An otherworldly glow lit the tip of his nose, his eyes, and the table in front of him.
“Really, and what was this one about?” asked Luland, absentmindedly. He was tied up in his work, but that’s just how Luland was, always working on something.
“It was the one with the raven again,” said the girl.
“The one where it speaks to you?” asked Luland.
The girl smiled. She knew Luland was always listening to her, even if it seemed like he wasn’t. She watched as he tapped the vial with his fingernail, muttered something incomprehensible, and hastily scrawled a few notes on a piece of parchment on his bench.
The girl continued to swing her feet anxiously. “I can remember what the raven said this time.”
“And?” asked Luland. He looked over at her inquisitively. The light from the vial highlighted his face in a ghoulish green, but his short blond hair and smart features were just as warm to the girl as ever. She considered Luland to be her best friend, and she hoped that he felt the same way. Luland returned to his work.
“We are sitting in the main dining hall at the long table like we are going to have a great big feast,” said the girl. “The table is set with huge steaming plates of meat, fresh fruit, and vegetables. Even Courtney’s fickleberry pie is there.”
“Her fickleberry pie is quite good,” said Luland. He had clamped the glowing green vial above a small flame and now had two metal spheres in his hands. Luland clanged them together every ten seconds or so and watched the boiling solution intensely.
The girl continued. “Father is sitting at the head of the table like he always does. Then there’s mother, uncle Cassius, you, and the head of the guard on one end.”
“Do I get to eat any of the fickleberry pie?” asked Luland.
“Oh.” Luland clanged the spheres together again, held some sort of lens up to his eye to examine the liquid, and scrawled something else down on the parchment.
“Sol and I are sitting at the other end of the table.”
“Well that’s not very nice, to stick you and your brother at the other end of the table like that.”
“I know, but then it gets even worse.”
There was another clang from the spheres and a sigh before Luland pulled a metal box with a crank out of a drawer and poured the liquid into it. He was muttering something to himself.
“The food is at the other end of the table with the adults. I call for Courtney to fetch a dish for me, but she never comes. And the adults, none of them are eating. Everyone just sits silently at their spot and doesn’t say a word. They don’t even blink.”
“So they’re not eating the fickleberry pie?” Luland looked over at the girl while he cranked the box. It squeaked like it was filled with baby mice.
“No, and that’s when the raven comes in through an open window or something and lands on my plate!”
“A raven on your plate?”
“There’s a raven on my plate, and it begins to speak to me. It tells me, ‘Bye three dawns this castle will fall, and the bones and blood of the dead shall be hoisted and hewn into a ship that rides the spectral night’.”
Luland set the box down on the bench and directed his full attention to the girl for the first time.
“Then the raven flies up to mother and yanks the necklace from her breast, flies back to me, and places it upon my plate. It flies and grabs my father’s crown and does the same, but this time it sets it on Sol’s plate. And it continues to do this, grabbing all of the belongings, even the ring that you are wearing right now, and sets it on our plates.”
“This ring?” asked Luland as he held his hand up with a large silver and sapphire ring on his index finger.
“That ring, and all other valuables that the raven could find were brought to us, before it flew off the way it came. And then I woke up.” The girl was out of breath and obviously flustered.
Luland walked over and knelt before her, placing a hand upon her leg. “Lily, sometimes we can dream up strange things to help us solve problems that have nothing to do with what the dreams are actually about.”
“I know, but it was just so real and so strange this time. And if it’s true, then there are only two more dawns,” said Lily, obviously concerned.
“Hey, how about we go bother Courtney for some of that fickleberry pie? All this talk about it has my stomach grumbling,” said Luland.
Lily smiled and hopped down from her chair. There was a sharp knock on the thick wooden laboratory door. It creaked open, revealing the tall, thin form of Lily’s brother, Sol.
“Mother wishes to see you, Lily,” said Sol. As he stepped into the room the green light from Luland’s mysterious concoction reflection off his fair-skinned face. It gave him the look of a ghost in contrast to his dark coat, trousers, and shoulder length hair.
“C’mon now, we’ll have to get our treat later. I’ll ask Courtney if I see her. You best go see what your mother needs,” said Luland.
Lily accompanied her brother, and they disappeared out the door before Luland diverted his attention back to the crank box on his bench.
“Now are you going to finally show me what you’ve been hiding from me?” he asked.
Sol began running down the red carpeted corridors of Castle Jade, and Lily was having a hard time keeping up with him. Light streamed in through tall windows and blanketed the hall in a warm amber glow. The jade statues of fallen heroes and mythological beasts that lined the walls cast portentous long shadows down the corridor. The jade ornaments and other sculptures that adorned the castle were how it got its name. Castle Jade was actually built out of stronger and more common types of stone.
Once, on one of their walks to visit Courtney, Luland had told Lily that some of the sculptures were thousands of years old. She could hardly imagine how that was possible, but she expected it to be true, if Luland had said it.
“Sol, slow down!” yelled Lily. She could hear his giggles echo as he rounded a corner ahead. Lily reached the corner herself, and was going to yell after him again, but all that could be seen was a long line of creepy sculptures running down the corridor. “Sol?” yelled Lily, warily. Her voice echoed off the high stone walls and ceiling. There was no sign of Sol.
Great, thought Lily; her brother was playing tricks on her again. She began to cautiously make her way down the corridor.