Liquic Diamond

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Chapter 4: THE CHOICE

Walking along the path leading away from Domnyar's village, Catalyst realized Natalia was lost in one of her daydreams again. He gave her a nudge to snap her out of it.

“What is it that you keep dreaming about, Natalia?” asked Catalyst.

“Well it may sound silly to you but if you really want to know I’ll tell you,” replied Natalia, looking at Catalyst and hoping he would decline.

“Yes, I really want to know,” replied Catalyst, who was hoping for something fun and exciting.

“I dream about my Mom, Dad and me having enough of the little things in life so we could enjoy it more. Not big things, just the little things, like enough money to go out for an ice cream for no other reason than just to go and have one; a dinner out every now and again; new shoes every six months or so; maybe a big grocery shop from time to time – just things like that. My Mom and Dad work hard, but most of the time there’s only enough money to pay the rent and buy a few groceries. When they do have more money it seems to be very little, so my dreams are my escape from poverty,” replied Natalia.

By the look in her eyes Catalyst could see Natalia was equally embarrassed as he was sad for her.

“Well I don’t understand everything you said – I’ve never heard of ice cream – but I do understand want and if I had the things you dream of, I would give them to you,” said Catalyst.

“Would you?” asked Natalia as though she had heard that a thousand times before.

“Of course I would. But what’s ice cream?” asked Catalyst.

Natalia burst out laughing. She wiped a tear from her eye and they walked on in silence, as Natalia lost herself in another dream so the next few hours would pass by without noticing.

But for Catalyst the hours felt like a week and the silence was boring. He had an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach and couldn’t be sure what it was. Was it because he liked Natalia or was it his intuition that something was wrong? Either way, he was happy enough to see the split path that lay in front of them.

“Which way?” asked Catalyst, elbowing Natalia to snap her out of her daydream.

With her dream broken and the split in front of them, Natalia waited to see which path Catalyst would choose.

“Natalia, which way?” asked Catalyst again.

“I don’t even know where I am, never mind where I’m going. You decide,” replied Natalia.

“Mmmm, if we go to the left there’s a swamp. If we go to the right there’s a forest with an abandoned town beyond it, but that’s off limits by order of the King,” replied Catalyst while he thought about the choice.

“If the town’s off limits, then the swamp it is – so not much of a choice is it?” said Natalia.

“We can go through anyway. I hardly ever listen to rules like that and besides, the reason it’s off limits only the King knows. You want to go and find out?” asked Catalyst.

You know, Catalyst is the perfect name for you. I’ve only known you for a few days and I’ve never been in so much trouble in my whole life, so no, Catalyst, I don’t want to go and find out,” replied Natalia smiling.

“It’s still your choice,” pointed out Catalyst as he stood waiting for Natalia to make up her mind.

“I’ll settle for wet feet instead of more trouble,” said Natalia, pulling Catalyst to the left and towards the swamp.

“Good choice, boring, but good,” replied Catalyst.

They walked around a bend in the path and Catalyst pointed to what lay ahead of them.

“How long will it take to walk through that?” asked Natalia as she looked out over the massive swamp.

“I don’t know. It depends on you really, but from what I’ve seen of your walking speed, maybe twenty-four hours more or less,” replied Catalyst.

“Oh great! We have to walk for twenty-four hours, and with soaking feet!” groaned Natalia.

“We’re not walking for twenty-four hours straight, Natalia, and we’ll dry our shoes by the fire at night,” replied Catalyst.

“Really, now you know how to build a fire in a swamp with all that wet wood? This I’d like to see. And speaking of night, Catalyst, where is it exactly that we’re supposed to sleep?” asked Natalia.

“Believe it or not, there are shacks in this place. I don’t know who built them and I’ve never seen anyone using them, but they’re there. Do you really think I would take you somewhere so awful you wouldn’t be able to rest? As for wood, we can use some of the shack itself if we have to,” replied Catalyst.

“Remember Natalia, this was your choice. I was willing to go through the forest and the old town,” continued Catalyst.

“What if the people are there now and refuse us?” asked Natalia.

“I’m pretty sure they’re all deserted. Just look at this place. Would you want to live here? I wouldn’t, not now anyway. Before, this place was beautiful but since the flood, this place went from nice to...well...this. Look, let’s say they are there and we’ll deal with that when we get there,” replied Catalyst.

“Ah, a boy with no plan! Well let’s hope they’re not home whoever they are. And by the way, Catalyst, we’re not moving, so let’s get going,” said Natalia, not wanting to take that first wet step.

Natalia stepped in and then out again just as fast.

“What’s wrong?” asked Catalyst, almost knee deep in the muddy water.

“I’ve taken one step and already I could feel something move under my foot,” replied Natalia as she looked down into the murky water.

“Well it is a swamp, Natalia! We’re bound to step on something every now and again,” said Catalyst.

“Where I come from, Catalyst, a man would offer to carry a woman through something like this,” said Natalia looking Catalyst right in his red eyes and speaking in a tone of voice that was so demanding it was more of an order rather than a request.

“That may very well be, but we’re not where you’re from. I’m not a man, I’m a boy and you’re not a woman, you’re a girl,” replied Catalyst, knowing right away that the words that left his mouth were nothing but trouble.

“When men speak to a woman like that in Russia, you know what we do?” asked Natalia.

“No,” replied Catalyst as the trouble began.

“We just stop talking to them and that’s that. Do you want me to stop talking to you, Catalyst?” asked Natalia feeling foolish and hurt for thinking she might be more than that to him.

“No, I don’t want you to stop talking to me. I was just trying to be funny, that’s all. We’re only kids, Natalia. You know I’m no more a man than you are a woman,” replied Catalyst feeling that his explanation was as much a mistake as his joke.

“Just the same though, Natalia, climb on my back and I’ll carry you,” offered Catalyst because he could see no other way out.

Without a word and with a shrug of her shoulders, Natalia climbed on Catalyst’s back, shoving the fitsall out of her way and into his face just to make the walk more awkward and pay him back for his mouth.

Leaving the fitsall where Natalia had shoved it, Catalyst moved through the water of the swamp, being extra careful not to get Natalia wet, hoping the effort would be enough to appease her. In the silence, Catalyst remembered what his Father had once told him as he tried to prepare him for manhood.

“Son, it’s a man’s job and his right to carry his wife through life when things get too hard for her and if you remember that you’ll be just fine when you’re married.”

With Natalia’s weight on his back and the fitsall choking him and the struggle with the water, Catalyst wondered why a man would want to marry when it’s so much work.

“Catalyst, where are these shacks you said were out here? I’m hungry and I want to get off your back for a while,” said Natalia.

“Good! I need a break,” mumbled Catalyst.

“What? What was that?” asked Natalia who had heard exactly what he said.

“Nothing. I was just saying I need a break and there’s a shack up ahead, so we can stop there and eat,” replied Catalyst.

They came upon a shack so run down and dilapidated that it couldn’t have been fixed in a month of Sundays.

“We can rest here for a while and I’ll climb a tree and see where we are and make sure we’re heading in the right direction. Do you want to make lunch?” offered Catalyst as he handed Natalia the fitsall.

Natalia just nodded, took the fitsall from him and walked to the door of the shack.

“I suppose I’m the one who has to check this place and make sure it’s safe,” said Natalia with her hand on the doorknob, waiting for Catalyst to show some chivalry.

With a deep breath, Catalyst ran in and through the three-room shack checking for anything he thought might bother Natalia. Almost as fast as he ran in he was back.

“It’s safe. There’s no one or nothing in there to worry about,” said Catalyst.

“Thank you!” replied Natalia. She closed the door behind her with a small slam.

“Natalia, I’m sorry. I was only trying to be funny. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” said Catalyst through the door.

“Okay, it’s fine. Now go and climb your tree. I’ll make lunch,” replied Natalia, having made her point.

“I will after we eat,” said Catalyst, making sure to put her first as he went back into the shack.

After lunch was finished Catalyst climbed a tree, making sure they were where he wanted them to be, and looking for an easier route.

His eyes almost popped out of his head. He let go of the tree and dropped at Natalia’s feet.

“Guess what I’ve just seen, Natalia?” asked Catalyst excitedly. “I saw the old trader! The one that set us up,” said Catalyst before Natalia could answer him.

“Where?” asked Natalia, looking around fearfully.

“He’s not far from here, so come on, get on, let’s go,” said Catalyst with his back to her.

Climbing on Catalyst’s back once more, Natalia held fast as Catalyst almost ran through the water.

He slowed down and stopped behind a large bush to watch the old trader for a moment before approaching him.

“Okay, let’s go,” said Catalyst.

“Well, well, well, who do we have here?” asked Catalyst as the old trader looked up. His jaw dropped down to his plate, which smashed as it hit the rock he was standing on.

“Oh no! Why have you come here? It’s not safe. Why didn’t you just let me go? That vile wretched old Elf – he’s sure to have followed me since you didn’t go out,” said the old trader, begging them not to be there.

“First of all, we did not come here to find you,” said Natalia.

“That just happened on our way to where we’re going, and that’s just fine with me,” chipped in Catalyst.

“Now can you tell me why you set me up like that?” asked Catalyst.

“That crazy Elf came to me and said the two of you were coming. He offered me a deal to wipe out my debt to him. Ah what was I thinking?” said the old Basajaunak trader with his weary head in his hands.

“A deal, what kind of deal?” asked Natalia before Catalyst could.

“Once a long time ago, I was a warrior. I was so sure of myself I never questioned who I was attacking and I always went at night to do what I needed to do. One night I believed I had the right cave and I was so sure my enemies were holed up inside…”

“Just get to the point, what kind of deal?” demanded Catalyst.

“If I sent you out into the night he said he would never tell anyone that I killed a cave full of children and my debt to him for keeping the secret would be paid in full. I never knew they were in there. I believed it was full of warriors just like myself,” said the old trader, looking for forgiveness.“

“If I didn’t do as he asked, everyone would know and he promised to burn down the village while everyone was sleeping, making it look as though I had done it, since that’s how I killed all those poor children. I’m sorry but if you’re here then the village is in great danger. I must go back and warn them,” continued the old trader as he grabbed his things.

“But please believe me, I had no choice,” wept the old trader.

“There’s always a choice – you either choose to do something or you choose not to and it’s the outcome that dictates whether you were right or wrong,” said Natalia.

“Don’t worry about the Elf though. We chose to go after him and we left him on the riverbank with the Riverfray. Domnyar and Miss Turr both know about him and you,” said Catalyst.

“There was a time when I had your bravery and I would have taken on a whole army to protect those that needed it, but those days of being a hero have been beaten out of me after all I’ve done. Now I’m just a tired old Basajaunak, not good for much of anything any more,” said the old trader, feeling ashamed.

“Well I guess I can try and understand why you did what you did now that I know you were only trying to save your people’s lives,” said Catalyst who was beginning to understand that no matter what he said, the pain of his history was punishment enough for the old Basajaunak.

“Tell us, what do you know about the locking crystals and a key?” asked Natalia.

“Only that the Clique had Miss Turr make the key. I don’t know anything more than that,” replied the old trader.

“Well that and they rewarded the Elf for getting rid of the two of you before you could retrieve the crystal being held here in Kyopelivuori, but that’s it,” continued the old trader.

“I believe him, Catalyst. Now let’s get going. We still have to cross as much of this swamp as we can and we need to find a place to sleep tonight,” said Natalia, pulling Catalyst away.

“Wait, before you go take this. It’s a map of the swamp. It’s the least I can do,” said the old trader.

Natalia and Catalyst took the map and headed back off into the swamp.

A scream reverberated through the air, sending shivers down their back.

“The old trader!” yelled Natalia and Catalyst at the same time. They ran back as fast as they could but they weren’t fast enough. They found the old trader lying there with half his face ripped off and bleeding massively. Natalia gagged as she rested his head in her lap.

“What could have done this, Catalyst?” asked Natalia as she cried for the old trader.

“I don’t know,“ replied Catalyst as he strained to listen for even the smallest of sound and watched the water for movement.

Natalia brushed the hair from the eyes of the old trader as she wiped away the tears.

“Catalyst,” whispered the old trader.

“Catalyst, come over here. He wants to say something to you,” said Natalia.

“All right, whatever it was that did this, it looks as though it’s gone now,” said Catalyst softly.

“Catalyst…I’m…I’m sorry...for what I...I you...I,” whispered the dying Basajaunak.

“Yes you did. As Natalia said, you had a choice. You could have told anyone – the villagers, me, the King, anyone at all. So yes you did have a choice and by making the one you did, you may have killed more people than just those in your village. If we don’t find a way to stop the Clique, you can bet more will die,” said Catalyst.

The Basajaunak breathed his last and his body went limp.

“Catalyst, how could you say that to him? He was dying,” said Natalia, tears running down her cheeks.

“I can understand him wanting to save his village and turning me over to the Elf or even the Clique to save them, but he needed to know the choice he made was the wrong one. That’s why he died out here instead of at home,” replied Catalyst.

“Come on, Natalia, we need to get moving before whatever it was that did this to him comes back for us,” said Catalyst, looking over the water that was as still as glass.

Reaching into his fitsall, Catalyst passed Natalia the Atropos Styx.

“Just in case we get separated, you’ll still have some protection,” said Catalyst.

“Mmm,” replied Natalia.

Catalyst reached back into his bag and pulled out the waterproof boots he had packed before they left. He stood there with a worried look on his face as he waited to be yelled at for Natalia’s wet feet.

“Well it’s not like I remembered,” said Natalia, taking a pair from him.

Natalia couldn’t help but look back at the old trader as he lay there.

“Catalyst, don’t you think we could at least bury him?” asked Natalia.

“I don’t want to worry you, Natalia, but I think I can hear Blemmyes coming. The scent of his blood has already carried through the swamp. We just don’t have time, so let’s just keep moving before we need to be put to rest,” replied Catalyst and pulled Natalia behind him.

They made their way through the swamp as quietly as possible using the old trader’s map and hardly saying a word to one another.

“Catalyst, surely by now we’ve walked far enough away from those things. Can’t we just find a place to stay for the night? I’m so tired and I really need to rest,” said Natalia.

Catalyst took another look at the map and pointed off to some bushes.

“There’s a shack on the other side of those,” said Catalyst, taking Natalia by the hand.

When they got to the other side of the bushes there was no shack to be seen.

“How far did you say, Catalyst?” asked Natalia as she began to sound fed up once again.

“The map said just on the other side of these bushes, but from the looks of it, thirty minutes maybe,” replied Catalyst.

“Here, why not get on my back? I’ll carry you,” offered Catalyst.

“You don’t have to ask me twice,” said Natalia with her jar in one hand. Before he knew it, she was on his back.

They finally arrived at the rundown old house and Catalyst took one look at Natalia.

“I know, wait here. I’ll go and check and make sure it’s safe,” said Catalyst leaving Natalia and his fitsall outside. Running as fast as he could, checking every little space, closet, drawer, upstairs, downstairs, and basement, Catalyst found nothing that you wouldn’t find in an abandoned old house sitting in the middle of a swamp. In only two minutes he was back at Natalia’s side.

“All rooms, closets, drawers checked. There’s nothing here – you’re safe,” said Catalyst and he held the door open for her.

“Natalia, you’re really quiet. I don’t want you to be angry with me for what I said to the trader,” said Catalyst as they laid out their blankets for the night.

“I’m not angry with you, Catalyst, I’m hurt. The words you spoke to him were the last words he heard. I don’t think anyone should have to die like that regardless of what they’ve done,” replied Natalia.

“I know, I know,” said Catalyst as he reached into his fitsall for their leftover jerky and some twig things.

“Exactly what are these, Catalyst?” asked Natalia.

“They’re a root, full of vitamins and minerals. You can’t eat just meat,” replied Catalyst.

At that, the door flew open and the room was filled with a moan so sorrowful that death would have been an act of mercy for whomever it was that cried out. Jumping with fear, her nerves shot, Natalia’s plate shattered as it hit the wall at the sight of the evil darkness floating in the doorway with a void where it’s face should be. Natalia and Catalyst knew they were looking at fear itself. Dripping wet with the swamp water and a smell so awful that the Elf’s stench faded from memory, Natalia and Catalyst wanted to run but couldn’t find the strength to move a muscle.

“Who are you? What are you doing in my master’s hoooome?” shrieked the creature, horribly. Natalia’s ear started to bleed.

Grabbing Natalia by the face, the creature almost loosened her tooth as it squeezed Natalia’s cheeks into a pucker and peered into her eyes.

Natalia’s heart was pumping harder than ever before but all she could do was stand there as the creature moved on to Catalyst. It grabbed him by the face and threw him against the wall.

“We didn’t know this was your place. We didn’t know anyone lived here. All we wanted was shelter for the night. We’ll leave,” cried Natalia through her tears.

“What makes you think I’m going to allow you to leave at all?” shrieked the creature as it spun around and raced to within an inch of Natalia’s face.

“I know what you are…I know you know of my Mother…the Krusnik. She’s dealt with your kind before, Crone, Witch, Harridan, Baba Jage or whatever it is you’re calling yourself this time,” said Catalyst, hoping the fear of Anastasia would be enough to stop the evil spirit.

The spirit stepped back, allowing her real self to be seen.

Standing there in place of the horrible void of evil was a tired old woman with a withered face, pure white sunken eyes and long grey-black hair. She was so bony it was as though skin had been painted on her bones.

“Your mother’s the Krusnik. Yes we have met,” said the old woman, remembering the beating she took from the Krusnik over tormenting some Human male.

“Who are you?” demanded the old woman, looking at Natalia.

“Natalia Cherkasskaya,” replied Natalia, her voice trembling.

“I would offer a name, but it’s been so long, I can’t remember what they called me,” said the old woman in a voice so dead it sent shivers up Natalia’s and Catalyst’s back.

“You still have not answered my other questions. What are you doing in my master’s home?” demanded the old woman, showing signs of her spirit.

Not wanting to jeopardize their safety, Natalia chose not to contradict the old woman.

“We’re on our way to Ghost Mountain to find the Clique. We needed a shelter for the night and when we found this place and nobody was here, we thought it would be okay,” replied Natalia.

“That’s right, we just needed a place to rest for the night,” said Catalyst, hoping his words would carry more weight with the old woman.

“The Clique, I see. You’ll have a hard time finding them,” said the old woman as her eyes misted over and turned to a dark green. Seeing this transformation, Natalia knew exactly what this being was and what she was capable of doing.

“Do you know where they are? Can you tell us?” asked Natalia hopefully.

“Yes and no. They come, they go, they travel far and they travel fast. It’s impossible to know exactly where or when they will be,” replied the old woman, trying to make sense of the people, places and things she was seeing.

“Can you tell us anything about where they might be?” asked Catalyst.

With her eyes still staring off into nothing, they misted back to pure white as she returned to her evil self.

“No, I will tell you nothing!” snapped the old woman.

“But you’re a spirit – surely you saw something that would help us?” said Catalyst, almost begging.

“I have seen a great many things, but each of us has our own journey to make in this life and the unknown path is as important as the known path. Right now yours is the unknown path.” Leaving just as fast as it came, the spirit disappeared out of the door.

“That, Natalia, was a hag.”

“I know, we have them on Earth, only ours show up when you deny their existence and scare that right out of you. They don’t hang around guarding someone’s abandoned home or answering questions, and all of that stuff sounded like a lot of needless babble,” interrupted Natalia.

“Well our spirits do. They can also see into the future and they’re supposed to help those in need. I don’t know why she wouldn’t tell us where to look for the Clique, but she must have a reason for it,” said Catalyst.

“Of course she did. Did you not see how evil she was when she came through the door? She’s only trying to make things harder for us,” said Natalia.

“Maybe, but what if she did tell us, Natalia? What if that information leads to real danger or even death because we chose to avoid what was coming or maybe ran right into it? I have to believe she wouldn’t tell us for a better reason than to make things harder. Even if that were the case, do you really want to know the future and ruin the point of getting out of bed tomorrow?” asked Catalyst, trying to make Natalia feel better.

“Only when it comes to the lottery, but I see your point,” laughed Natalia.

“Lottery? Hmm,” mumbled Catalyst, wondering just what that was. An hour later Natalia had eaten half of what was on Catalyst’s plate and was now fast asleep, while Catalyst cleaned up the food from Natalia’s shattered mess and kept watch over her.

As the Elf sat on his self-made throne eating what meat he could from the leg of the Blemmye Catalyst had boiled, he knew he needed to save his life from the vengeance of the Clique. So with the thigh of the Blemmye in hand the Elf set off. Maybe the strength of Natalia’s ten-year-old little girl perfume would be strong enough to leave behind enough of a scent for him to follow – after all, he could still smell it throughout his lair.

Heading into Domnyar’s village, the Elf followed the scent to and then from Domnyar’s hut. At the edge of the swamps, the Elf not only could smell the scent but see the oily trail left behind in the water. Although it only stretched out a few feet from the edge, it was more than enough to tell the Elf which way he needed to go.

“If I can get ahead of them, then I can sneak up behind them as they pass by and this time tomorrow my debt to Sirdis and the Clique will be paid in full. Ah, this is going to be so easy, they won't even know what hit them,” said the Elf to himself as he bounced the Blemmye’s thighbone in his hands.

Not being exactly stupid, although he didn't know just where they were, he was able to make a good guess as to where they would have to go, and knowing that Natalia was only Human, the chances of them still being somewhere in the swamp were more than good enough for the Elf to plan around that, and plan he did.

When the sun rose the next morning, Catalyst chose not to wake Natalia while he made a small breakfast. He woke her gently but she still managed to growl at him for his efforts. Nonetheless, they had to move on.

Dragging herself from the comfortable warmth of her blanket with the thought of the old trader fresh in her mind and the fear of the spirit, Natalia refused breakfast as she pushed herself upright.

“Did you dry my shoes, Catalyst?” asked Natalia as she looked for the fire he was supposed to build and hadn't.

“You had one wet shoe and it dried itself, but now it stinks of swamp. Sorry,” replied Catalyst, handing her the shoe.

”Ew! This smells worse than my nextdoor neighbour, Measha. Oh well, I'll just do as I always do,” said Natalia as she took her perfume from her pocket and sprayed more than enough into both shoes. With four sprays into the air it was just enough for Natalia to walk through.

The Elf found his point of ambush and, in need of an accomplice, he set about boiling the thighbone. Just as he would have it, an accomplice came to him, a beast so simple minded that all the Elf had to do was touch its back and concentrate on what he wanted it to do. The beast set off as it sniffed the air for the scent of Natalia’s ten-year-old little girl perfume.

Holding the door open for Natalia, Catalyst had it ripped from his hand and slammed in his face.

Turning around at the sound of a creak, Natalia’s stomach contracted in fear at the sight of the old woman standing there.

“How did you get in here?” asked Catalyst without concern.

“I've been here all night, watching, wondering, contemplating just what to do about the two of you,” replied the old woman.

“We watched you leave,” said Natalia.

“You only saw what you and I wanted you to see, but it matters not. What does matter is it seems I have little choice but to offer the two of you some help,” said the old woman.

“You could tell us where to find the Clique,” said Catalyst.

“That I will not do, but I will give you this,” replied the old woman, handing Natalia a stone axe.

Taking the axe from her, Natalia handed it to Catalyst.

“Just what are we supposed to do with this? How's this going to help us?” asked Catalyst, hoping for a clue in what was sure to be a riddle.

“I have done all that is required of me and I will help no more. Now leave this house,” ordered the old woman.

Ripping the door almost from its hinges with just a look, the old woman threw Natalia and Catalyst out with a single glance.

“What do you think that axe is for, Catalyst?” asked Natalia.

“I don't know, but the spirit can see into the future and since their nature is to help those that need it, you can bet this is going to come in useful,” replied Catalyst, putting the axe into the fitsall.

Walking in silence for a time, Natalia was able to rest her mind. Catalyst was paying more attention to her than their surroundings so he hadn't noticed the noises coming from the swamp. He had no idea they were once again being stalked.

Without so much as a ripple in the water, a Blemmye rose behind them, slashing and tearing at the air as it tried to grab one of them. Smacking the Blemmye with the fitsall, Catalyst took Natalia by the hand and ran, leaving the Blemmye on its back in the swamp.

Well aware of the sounds around them now, Catalyst could hear the sounds of hooves splashing through the water trampling the Blemmye as the beast headed straight for them.

“What now?” said Catalyst, not knowing which way to run.

Grabbing Catalyst, Natalia dragged him behind some trees as the splashing of the hooves came to a stop and the gurgling from the Blemmye faded with its life.

Peeking around the tree, Catalyst came face to face with a Horrabbull, standing eight feet at the shoulders, with the body of a bull and the head of a horse. Catalyst just froze. He had seen these beasts before but had never been this close to one.

Natalia could only see the enormous rear end of the beast. She took Catalyst by the arm and pulled him away ever so quietly. They moved from tree to bush to tree trying to escape the huge animal, but being the size of an elephant the Horrabbull had no trouble following behind them at a gentle trot.

“Here it comes! Run, Catalyst!” yelled Natalia as she tried to make a dash for it.

Pulled back by Catalyst, Natalia found herself standing right beside Catalyst and his new friend the Horrabbull. It didn't take much for a gentle nudge of its nose to wipe away Natalia’s fears.

“Well imagine that, it saved us from that Blemmye and it wanted to say hi,” said Catalyst.

“What is this thing?” asked Natalia amazed by its gentle nature.

“It's a Horrabbull. Somewhere, somehow, someone must have cross-bred a horse and bull or they did it to themselves, but I doubt that,” replied Catalyst as he petted the beast.

“If they’re so gentle, why did you hide?” asked Natalia as she watched Catalyst stroke the Horrabbull’s face.

“I've never been this close to one before – I didn't know,” replied Catalyst, feeling silly.

After catching their breath for a moment and thanking the Horrabbull, Catalyst pulled Natalia back to their walk.

“Let's get out of here before something else happens,” said Catalyst as he took out the map again.

“This way, Natalia,” said Catalyst taking her by the hand to help her through the mud and water. Right behind them followed the Horrabbull, nudging them both.

“Well what do you think, Natalia – think it wants to give us a ride?” asked Catalyst jokingly.

“Well we could try getting on, but you first since it was your idea,” replied Natalia smiling at the thought of getting out of her boots and not having to struggle with the swamp all day.

“Me first, always me first, first in the swamp first in the houses, first up a tree. I thought you were Russian and were supposed to be braver than that,” said Catalyst trying to avoid climbing on to the Horrabbull.

“I am Russian, I am brave, and I'm also a girl, so yes, Catalyst, you’re supposed to be a man. You first,” said Natalia showing him the left side of the beast as she used her intelligence to manipulate Catalyst.

Watching Catalyst climb the beast and get settled, Natalia could now finish what she had to say.

“Hey, Catalyst, I am Russian, I am brave, but I'm also a girl and smart enough to never get on an animal that size without knowing if it's safe, so yes you first,” laughed Natalia, mocking him for his complaining.

Turning to answer her, Catalyst shifted the wrong way, hit the wrong spot, and with a buck of its bum, Catalyst found himself sitting chest deep in muddy water.

“See, brave, not stupid,” said Natalia taking Catalyst by the hand and pulling him to his feet.

“Come on, let's just keep walking,” said Catalyst smirking at it all, happy to see Natalia happy again.

Nudging Natalia continually as they walked, the Horrabbull slowly pushed them from their path.

I think it wants us to go this way, Catalyst. Animals are pretty smart. Maybe there's trouble that way and I don't want to argue with it,” said Natalia.

“Agreed, but the map says the next house is that way,” replied Catalyst, following anyway.

“Catalyst, look at the size of this thing. I think it’s best just to go with it for now. We can slip away a little later,” said Natalia. When they came upon a mud hut about an hour later, the Horrabbull trotted off and simply vanished into the swamp.

“Well that was a waste of time. Now we have to go back all that way because there's no way I'm spending the night in that,” said Catalyst.

“Why do you think that thing wanted us to come here?” asked Natalia, confused.

“I can answer that,” came a voice from inside the mud hut carried on a stench so foul it made them gag.

“It's amazing how easy it is to take control of some creatures’ minds. All I had to do was make you two think you were safe and you followed it right to me,” said the vile old Elf, stepping from the shadows of the mud hut.

“But we left you for the Riverfray’s dinner,” said Catalyst, surprised.

“Something you’re going to be very sorry for, boy,” said the Elf calmly.

“But one thing’s for certain...a bit of torture always works up an appetite,” continued the Elf, rubbing his stomach as the drool ran down his chin.

“Quick, Catalyst, your fitsall,” said Natalia, grabbing it off Catalyst’s shoulder.

Taking Natalia with the fitsall in hand, the Elf threw her into the mud hut, while Catalyst found himself on the receiving end of a back-handed slap from the Elf that knocked him to the ground.

Diving for the bag, Natalia started to dig for the Atropos Styx, pulling it from the fitsall and giving it a good shake to anger the moth. With a look at the Elf, Natalia could see there was no clear shot at him, not without hitting Catalyst.

She then thought to look for the stone axe the old woman had given them and threw it to Catalyst. Catching it dextrously, Catalyst swung the axe again and again as he choked on the stench of the Elf, but he landed no hits at all.

“Catalyst, you have to get out of the way!” yelled Natalia, waving the jar at him.

“Natalia just open the jar and fire!” screamed Catalyst.

With no choice, Natalia did just that, hitting both the Elf and Catalyst, sending them thudding to the ground, dazed.

Taking Catalyst by the shoulders and dragging him away, Natalia turned and went back for the fitsall and Atropos Styx with the axe in hand.

She took the bag but turning as fast as she could, Natalia stood face to face with the Elf. Knowing she was not going to be able to fight the Elf, Natalia thought fast.

Peering over his shoulder, Natalia covered her face in fear of something coming from behind the Elf.

Seeing the look of terror on Natalia’s face, the Elf turned to see what could frighten her more than he could. With his back to her, Natalia swung the axe as hard as she could, trying to hit the back of his leg. She missed only to hit him right in the left bum cheek dropping him to his knees. Natalia ran outside the mud hut with the fitsall in hand and threw the axe at the ceiling bringing down the roof upon the Elf, losing the axe to the cave-in.

Catalyst was dazed so Natalia dragged him for a change, trying to put as much distance between them and the Elf as she could.

“Ah, Catalyst, we need to stop. I’m exhausted,” said Natalia.

“Then stop and rest,” replied Catalyst, hanging off Natalia’s back.

“Here I am, trying to save you, and you've been okay all this time? Do you know how much trouble you caused?” demanded Natalia.

“First of all you saved me a long time ago; secondly, you've just been carrying me all this time; thirdly, trouble, what trouble?” laughed Catalyst, getting Natalia back for that Horrabbull thing.

“Oh, you'll see, trust me you'll see,” replied Natalia.

“See? The only thing I see is the spirit was right, we did need that axe after all and that must have been the reason she handed it to you and not me,” replied Catalyst beaming at Natalia’s bravery.

“Well let's hope we only needed it the one time, because now it's buried with the Elf,” said Natalia.

“Another five minutes, Natalia, and you would have dragged me all the way back to where we were to begin with. Come on, I don't want to sit here. It's too dangerous and the next house isn't that far,” said Catalyst.

“Can't we just rest here for the night? I'm so tired and that Elf is buried,” said Natalia.

“I’m tired as well and no we can't. Climb on and I'll carry you from here. It's not that far,” replied Catalyst.

Walking with Natalia on his back as fast and as quietly as he could, Catalyst just had to ask.

“How did you get away from that Elf?”

“I smacked him in the bum with the axe. He dropped to his knees and I ran, that's how,” replied Natalia.

Catalyst laughed so loudly that Natalia had to put her hand over his mouth to quiet the noise, but it was too late. Hearing the sound of trotting hooves in the distance, Catalyst started moving as fast as he could and making all kinds of noise doing so.

“Oh no, Catalyst! Wings! Listen, here comes the Cockatrice as well,” said Natalia.

Catching his foot on a root as he ran, Catalyst landed in the water face first with Natalia right on top of him. Before she could get up, Catalyst held her down.

“Sh, wait. Don't move,” whispered Catalyst.

Lying there, Natalia and Catalyst watched as the Horrabbull passed them by without noticing them. The Cockatrice followed it, hoping for an easy meal.

“Get up nice and slowly. Don't make a sound. Now we can follow them,” said Catalyst.

“Are you crazy?” whispered Natalia.

“If we're following them and not them us, it'll make it easier to hide if we have to. We won't be caught and we'll get to where were going a lot faster,” whispered Catalyst.

“I guess I have to agree with that, but I don't like it any more than when they were following us,” whispered Natalia, crunching up her face.

“Good. I'm glad you agree. Now sh,” whispered Catalyst.

Ducking and dodging behind every tree and bush they could, turning the thirty-minute walk into one that felt like hours, Natalia and Catalyst finally arrived unharmed at the house. They sneaked up the stairs, which creaked so loud that the Horrabbull immediately turned, saw them and started towards the house.

“Great, Catalyst! Look what you've done now,” said Natalia clearly annoyed.

“Look what I've done? I got us here, that's what I've done,” replied Catalyst proudly.

“Yes you did, thirty seconds behind this thing all the way, and now look – here it comes. You couldn't just go another fifteen feet without making a sound?” growled Natalia.

“Let's just get inside. Perhaps it'll just wander off during the night,” replied Catalyst calmly. He realized the anger in her voice was simply exhaustion.

Natalia walked inside expecting the worst.

“Well?” asked Natalia.

“Well what?” replied Catalyst.

“Where's the spirit for this place?” demanded Natalia.

“How should I know? I don't even know if there is one,” replied Catalyst in a less friendly tone.

Pulling the fitsall from Catalyst’s hand, Natalia sat down, grabbed some jerky and started chewing without caring whether Catalyst got any or not.

Catalyst took the bag back from Natalia and reached in to find that the only things left to eat were the twigs. Too tired to fight with Natalia, especially with the mood she was in Catalyst just tossed over her blanket, wrapped himself in his and went to sleep, exhausted from the day.

Without saying a word, Natalia did the same. After all, she was full!

Lying there Natalia couldn't help but think of her home and her Mom and Dad. She hoped they were well. Natalia missed all her friends but she drifted off to sleep with a smile on her face hoping she would have good dreams.

Resting comfortably in her bed with the morning sun still a few hours away, Anastasia started to toss and turn as her stomach cramped with anxiety, waking her from her sleep. With her eyes wide open and filled with fear for Catalyst’s safety she could feel his pending doom as his mind screamed out to her.

Through her open window, Anastasia raced into the night sky high enough to see out over all the land of Kyopelivuori. She slowly turned in all directions, waiting for her mother’s instinct to tell her which direction to fly in. Catalyst’s thoughts were too panicked for Anastasia to make sense of the feelings she was getting from him.

Leaving a faint red trail behind her as her gown dragged through the air, Anastasia headed for her son and Natalia, hoping she was going the right way.

Waking to a poke, poke, poke on the forehead and expecting it to be Catalyst getting her back for the night before, Natalia opened her eyes with a look of anger that quickly turned to fear. There, standing over her was the guard of the house, an enormous spirit that stood more than six and a half feet tall. He was a void from head to toe filled with nothing but the feeling of pure evil, a darkness so thick in intensity it was almost enough to stop someone from breathing.

Natalia looked over to Catalyst for help and saw he was tied up and sitting in the corner, petrified.

“What are you doing in this house?” howled the spirit as it slammed it foot down beside Natalia’s head. Natalia faded into unconsciousness, leaving Catalyst to deal with the spirit alone.

Turning its attention to him, the spirit demanded the same of him. Knowing he couldn't fight and win or even escape, Catalyst did his best to explain everything, and from the look in its eyes, Catalyst felt his explanation was a waste of breath. As he looked at the creature he could see so clearly but not completely, Catalyst’s mind screamed for Anastasia.

Anastasia’s heart was pounding and her intuition was out of control so she could only hope she was feeling exactly where Catalyst was as she burst through the door of the house, shattering it into a thousand pieces.

The spirit had returned to its normal form as a beautiful young woman with long black hair and pure white eyes. She took one look at Anastasia and returned to her monstrous state, looked as though she could easily rip Anastasia in two.

Anastasia smiled with satisfaction, knowing she would not have to hold back in punishing this evil creature for hurting her son and Natalia. She let loose the Dark Angel inside her.

With her skin now as black as the blackest night and her eyes blood red, her fingernails at their fullest length and her teeth long and vicious, Anastasia felt her power surging.

Cocking her head to one side the spirit just looked at the Dark Angel completely unimpressed by what she had just seen. She moved towards Anastasia. With a slash of her nails, Anastasia ripped into her chest.

“You grabbed the wrong woman’s children today,” said Anastasia as she circled the spirit ready to strike again.

Drawing on all her power, the spirit threw her hands out in front of her, pointing them at the Dark Angel as energy shot from them and into the Dark Angel’s chest, sending her crashing through the wall and into a tree.

Returning as fast as she had left, Anastasia delivered a punch to the spirit’s chest and then an upper cut to her chin, knocking her flat on her back.

Surprised that the Dark Angel could actually touch her since she was a spirit in this form, she just lay there on her back, shocked.

“You’re not fighting fair,” said the Dark Angel as she stood over the spirit.

Not wanting to lose her foe, the spirit was back on her feet in a blink.

Exchanging one punch for another, one kick for another, one slam against the wall for another, and full of the Dark Angel’s slashes, the spirit could see that the Dark Angel was not going to be beaten by a few simple punches. Slashes to the Dark Angel’s face healed within seconds and the spirit could see nothing she did had any real effect.

Grabbing the Dark Angel and heading to the sky, flying up as high as she could, the spirit started spinning as fast as she could and threw the Dark Angel to the ground. Flying past the Dark Angel, the spirit raced to the ground to see the look on the Dark Angel’s face as she hit.

Landing and looking up, the spirit could see she was only a few seconds ahead of the Dark Angel. Zeroing in on Anastasia’s face to see the look of pain on impact, the spirit was completely blown away when the Dark Angel stopped just an inch from the ground, sending out a wave of air filled with the energy that she carried with her in the fall.

Going through the house, narrowly missing Catalyst and the sleeping Natalia, hitting a tree and bouncing into another, the spirit didn't have time to take a breath before she felt the slash of the Dark Angel’s nails across her face once again.

“Your turn,” said the Dark Angel, grabbing the spirit and returning to the sky.

Winding up, the Dark Angel threw the spirit to the swamp water below. She zipped past the spirit and beat her back to the ground. She watched as the spirit hit the stinking swamp water.

“Is that what you were trying to do? Because if it was, that's how you get it done,” said the Dark Angel, grabbing the spirit by the throat.

The spirit knew she was beaten. She begged for mercy from the Dark Angel, promising to leave her children alone.

Cutting loose the rope that kept Catalyst bound and picking up Natalia, Anastasia returned to her usual Mom self. She drifted out of the swamp, leaving the spirit’s house in ruins.

Well away from the swamp, Anastasia lay them down under a tree as she watched over them until the sun rose.

When Catalyst woke, he could see his Mother brushing the hair out of Natalia’s eyes as she gently woke her, only to have Natalia jump back in fear thinking it was the spirit again.

Seeing it was Anastasia, Natalia took a quick look around.

“What happened?” asked Natalia fearfully.

“It would seem that you and my son chose to sleep in the wrong place, but don't worry it's okay now,” replied Anastasia.

“So, what? When? Anastasia, how did you know?” asked Natalia.

“The same way every good mother knows. We just know when our kids are in trouble,” replied Anastasia, looking at Catalyst.

Grabbing Anastasia in a huge hug, Natalia hung on for dear life as Catalyst sat puzzled by what his Mother had said.

“Intuition, it's a woman thing. You wouldn't understand,” said Natalia smiling at Catalyst as though she did.

“Okay, enough of the mushy stuff. We don't want to make Catalyst jealous, now do we?” asked Anastasia pulling out of a hug that seemed it would never end.

“Now let's get the two of you fed. What's in your fitsall, Catalyst?” asked Anastasia.

“All we have left are those twig things, as Natalia likes to call them. After I fell into the water yesterday everything we had was soaked by the swamp water so I threw most things away,” replied Catalyst.

“ could you? You let me eat that Cockatrice jerky last night,” said Natalia in disgust.

“Well, by the time I realized what you were doing it was too late and it didn't seem to bother you and you were hungry and you were,” replied Catalyst.

Rolling her eyes back in her head Anastasia looked at Natalia as though she agreed with whatever Natalia was thinking.

“Well that's a man for you. If it tastes good eat it. You wait here and I'll be back in a short while,” said Anastasia as she turned and disappeared into the sky.

She returned with enough food for a few days and when Natalia and Catalyst were fed, Anastasia gave Natalia a spoonful of herb juice that tasted no better than stink itself for the sore stomach she was bound to get from eating the swamp-watered jerky.

“Well you two, I'm off now and you can get back to your task,” said Anastasia as she turned and flew off.

“Wow! That was one horrifying night,” said Catalyst.

“I wouldn't know. I slept right through it,” replied Natalia, not wanting to embarrass herself by admitting she fainted.

Catalyst didn’t want to pick up the fight from where they left off the night before. He thought Natalia was right, she had slept right through it, so he chose to shut his mouth.

“Speaking of sleeping, Catalyst, if you got everything inside the fitsall wet when you fell in the water yesterday, how come our blankets were dry?” asked Natalia curiously.

“Dry? Oh no, they were soaked. I just wrung all the water from them and if there was any left it dried itself,” replied Catalyst.

“It wasn't enough that you let me eat that swamp water, you let me wrap myself in it as well! Why?” asked Natalia, feeling betrayed.

“You were cold, angry, hungry and tired. The food didn't hurt you, the blankets didn't smell and they were not dirty. I was only doing for you what I would do for me. It was all okay, you’re fine,” replied Catalyst hoping his good intentions would be enough.

“I understand. I don't like it, but I understand,” said Natalia.

“Come on Natalia, we still have along way to go,” said Catalyst as he held his hand out to her.

“How much further is this mountain anyway?” asked Natalia as she gave him the fitsall.

“I can't be sure. I've never travelled like this before – walking, I mean. I usually move a lot faster than this, but since we we're doing this together and we have to walk...I'm thinking a few days at the very least. But not to worry, Natalia, just up ahead we can trade for supplies. You'll like it, it'll be just like shopping and it's only a few hours from here,” replied Catalyst with a smile, not realizing what he had said.

With a look of “How dare you!” on her face Natalia started in on him.

“On Earth or here, you boys are all the same! You think just because I'm a girl that I must love shopping. You probably think all that I care about is my hair and make up as well, is that it? Is that what you think about me, Catalyst?” demanded Natalia.

“No,” replied Catalyst stunned, not seeing that one coming.

“Well then you’re wrong again, because I love to shop and look nice,” laughed Natalia as she enjoyed getting him back for the swamp-water jerky.

“Yep, here or Earth, you boys are all the same. A little bit of trouble with a girl and you shut up like you've run and ducked for cover,” continued Natalia.

“You know, Catalyst, after last night I really needed a good laugh. Thank you,” said Natalia sincerely.

Time passed as they walked and talked about nothing special so neither Natalia nor Catalyst felt the hours pass. There was one steep hill separating them from their destination and Natalia wondered how they were ever going to climb it.

“Look at that, Catalyst,” said Natalia pointing up the hill.

“It's easy, just walk like this,” said Catalyst as he led the way, walking a few feet up and to the right and then up and to the left.

“See, Natalia, just keep criss-crossing, it's easy,” he said.

Pushing through the caved-in mud hut came the hand of the Elf, holding the stone axe he used to dig himself out with. Pulling himself from the dirt the Elf started limping after his prey, Natalia and Catalyst, and with only one way to get to Ghost Mountain after leaving the swamp, the Elf was right on track.

At the top of the hill Catalyst took Natalia by the hand and pulled her up as she reached the top.

“Well, there you go, Natalia, just a few more minutes and we'll be at the front door,” said Catalyst pointing to the long curved wall that lay in front of them.

“Hmm, so here we are and it only took six hours and not three as you said it would,” snapped Natalia. “Catalyst, I'm sorry. I'm just getting really hungry that's all. Anyway, what is this place?” asked Natalia before Catalyst could say anything.

“This place is a centre, a lot of things happen here, people live here, a few traders sell their wares, some people work here as well, but mostly it's a...a...”

“A what, Catalyst? Come on, I'm tired of the surprises. Just tell me,” said Natalia.

“It's the Gallows, a jail,” replied Catalyst, pulling back in case he got slapped.

“Gallows? You’re taking me to an executioner’s?” demanded Natalia.

“It's not that bad,” said Catalyst lying right to her face. “Come on, you'll see,” continued Catalyst.

Feeling uneasy and thinking she should know better, Natalia went anyway.

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