Chapter 5: THE GALLOWS
As they approached the Gallows, Natalia looked at it in wonder.
“It's just one big wall – that's not so bad,” said Natalia.
“Nope, not so bad at all,” replied Catalyst, knowing full well what waited them on the inside.
“You know, Natalia, although I've never seen it myself because I don't fly, my Mom says that from above, this place looks like a snail shell. She says it circles in on itself until it gets to the centre.”
“So how do we get in or out, for that matter?” asked Natalia as she looked for a door.
“That's easy – there are two doors – the one we'll go in that's just over there and the one we'll leave from and that's in the centre, but it's more of a hatch than a door,” replied Catalyst.
“So it's like one long hallway then,” said Natalia, having thought about how one wall circling in on itself would make a hallway.
“Yes, that's exactly what it is,” replied Catalyst.
“Then why don't we go in, get what we need and come back out here and walk around this place instead of walking around in circles? That would be faster, right?” asked Natalia.
“It would be if all we wanted to do was get to the other side of this place, but you see that sheer cliff over there?” asked Catalyst.
“Yes,” replied Natalia, as she looked at the cliff at least a mile away.
“That's what we would have to climb if we just went around this place, and I can't carry you up something like that. But at the centre of the Gallows there's a ladder that runs to the hatch I told you about. Then that leads to a bridge that we can use to cross over to that cliff. Up there is the way we need to go to get to Ghost Mountain,” said Catalyst.
“So we have to go through here then? Well let's just get it over and done with,” said Natalia not liking the idea of crossing a bridge that had to be at least a mile long and slope to two miles high at the far end.
Walking up to the wall and standing in front of nothing but a few chiselled carvings, Catalyst smiled at Natalia, took his finger and set in motion the mechanism that would unlock and open the gateway.
He dropped a pebble into a small cup and the cup pulled on a string that lifted a pin that let go of a gear that started spinning, turning a whole series of gears and belts to open the gateway.
As Natalia walked to the gate ready to go in, Catalyst stood back as a huge gust of wind came rushing out and smacked Natalia right in the face.
“Ah! That stinks and it's burning my eyes. You could have warned me, Catalyst,” said Natalia, spitting out the taste of foulness.
“That happens to everyone that comes here but don't feel bad, Natalia, it happened to me as well,” laughed Catalyst.
“Fresh air! Fresh air! Someone's coming, new arrivals!” shouted out a faceless voice from somewhere down the hallway.
“It seems they know we're here,” said Catalyst looking at Natalia as he waited for a few seconds for the smell to go away.
Stepping inside and having heard everything that it took to open the gateway, Natalia just had to watch the gateway re-lock it-self.
With the gears spinning and belts turning all over its face, one gear bigger than the next, Natalia watched until the pebble was thrown back to where it fell from.
“Wow, I've never seen anything like that before,” said Natalia smiling at Catalyst.
“I've seen it a few times,” boasted Catalyst feeling good that Natalia was impressed, not understanding it was the way the door locked that impressed her, not his bringing her there.
“Look, Natalia, see the crystals on the wall? They’re charged by the sun then brought in here to light the hallway,” said Catalyst as he pointed to their glow, hoping Natalia would stay impressed.
“I wish we had some of these at home. They'd make things easier,” replied Natalia.
“Now for the part you’re not going to like – the rooms in this section and a few sections ahead are cells for the prisoners, so try and stay in the middle of the hall while we walk through here. I'll show you what I mean,” said Catalyst, pulling Natalia over to a cell he hoped was still empty.
With a quick look inside just to make sure, Catalyst stepped out of her way.
“They had a prisoner held in this cell at one time and he thought he could escape through the ceiling so he climbed up inside, but he never got any further than that,” said Catalyst.
“Why not?” asked Natalia, knowing she was not going to like the answer.
“Well they have guards here, but they are really only here to stop anyone from trying to use the hallways for an escape. They have to feed them and basically they just babysit. With the doors three inches thick and as hard as rock, no one has ever got through one to escape. But the ceilings are another story. They can't make them too thick and heavy or they'd just cave in, so between the ceilings and the roof it's hollow,” said Catalyst.
“Like an attic, I understand, but why did he not get any further?” interrupted Natalia.
“The guards put safeguards in place to stop the prisoners from trying to use it as an escape,” replied Catalyst not wanting to worry Natalia, but also waiting for her to question it further. That way it would be easier for her to take the news about what it was that surrounded them and what to watch for.
“So what's up there?” asked Natalia knowing exactly what Catalyst was doing by making her ask.
“Well, remember those spark bugs we've been seeing at night? They’re up there and when they see anyone, they surround them, because they’re bugs and that's what they do. But they also show the Acquittals where to find you,” replied Catalyst.
“What are those?” asked Natalia, who was tired of playing games.
“Acquittals are one of the four ways out of here. You either die by execution, old age, finish your sentence or by Acquittal,” replied Catalyst still holding back the answer.
“The answer, Catalyst, please!” said Natalia, clearly annoyed.
“They’re a type of snake. They’re blind. They have wings and they’re attracted to the heat from the glow of the spark bugs. So when the Acquittals feel the heat, they know there's food to be had and they come for you. They spit a blinding acid and wait for you to succumb to it. When there's no fight left in you, they start eating you, just like you would eat any meat, ripping and tearing. Sooner or later there's just nothing left,” replied Catalyst.
“Well I can see why you didn't want to tell me, but what I don't see is why you would bring me here!” snapped Natalia.
“It's the only way to Ghost Mountain. We have to go through here. I can't just carry you up that cliff,” replied Catalyst.
Pulling her glasses from her pocket Natalia slipped them on.
“Those won't help you here, Natalia. There's no Cockatrice,” said Catalyst.
Be that as it may, they'll cover my eyes from any acid flying through the air, said Natalia.
“These change everything in here. Catalyst, with these on you’re not so bad looking,” laughed Natalia getting Catalyst back for the gust of stinky wind.
Red faced and not knowing what to say, Catalyst just stood there, gob smacked!
On hearing an eerie screech from down the hall, Natalia’s uneasy feeling returned.
“I knew as soon as you said Gallows that this place was nothing but trouble waiting to happen!” said Natalia as she looked him right in his red eye.
“It's never bothered me all that much. I've been here many times before and I do know this place, so it should be okay,” replied Catalyst. He was growing tired of her complaining.
“Should be okay?” demanded Natalia.
“It will be, trust me, it'll be fine, I promise,” replied Catalyst.
Grabbing Catalyst and pushing him up against the wall, Natalia looked him in the eye once again.
“Let me tell you something about Russian girls, Catalyst. One more thing we don't like and won't stand for is a promise made and a promise broken, so if you can't keep your promise, don't make it,” said Natalia.
Looking at Natalia and remembering his lie from before, Catalyst could feel trouble coming.
“Okay, what I mean is we'll get through this,” said Catalyst as honestly as he could.
“That's better. Now let's just keep moving,” said Natalia. She let Catalyst lead the way and followed closely behind.
“Duck!” yelled Catalyst, pulling Natalia to the ground as a hand reached through a viewing window trying to grab them.
“Whew! That was close, but exciting,” said Natalia, smiling.
“I know, but let's be careful. They may be locked up, but I still want to get to the end of this place alive,” said Catalyst.
“Mmm,” agreed Natalia, still smiling at the near miss.
Taking Natalia by the hand, Catalyst walked a straight line down the centre of the hall until they reached the part of the hall wide enough for only one person at a time to pass through.
“Natalia, wait here and watch me go through this and then do exactly what I do, okay? Because you have to cross this Narrow in three seconds or less, so don't be late,” said Catalyst.
“Three seconds or less, why?” asked Natalia, having got to the point where trouble just seemed to be her new way of life.
“It's one of the traps used to stop the prisoners in this section from escaping should they get into the hall or get loose from a guard. Just do it in three,” replied Catalyst, turning to the Narrow.
Walking through the Narrow as fast as he could, Natalia watched as the walls slammed behind him. Not knowing whether or not Catalyst made it through, Natalia breathed a sigh of relief as she saw him standing there when the walls opened back up.
“See! Nothing to it. Now it’s your turn – three, Natalia,” said Catalyst.
“Three, three, three,” repeated Natalia to herself as she got ready to cross, and with a run, Natalia darted through the Narrow in less than two seconds. She turned to watch the walls close behind her just as Catalyst threw a fist-sized rock in between them so Natalia could see what missed her. The walls slammed shut leaving nothing but a bunch of rubble falling to the floor as they opened back up.
“So why did you run?” asked Catalyst being a smart mouth.
“That thing's a death trap!” said Natalia not having heard Catalyst’s smart question.
“Yes it is for those that don't know it's there,” said Catalyst carelessly.
Continuing their walk and rounding the curve in the wall, Natalia began to feel at ease seeing a guard posted at the first security door.
“Can you open the door, please?” asked Catalyst.
“So, you’re back again, huh? No shackles, I see. I thought for sure the next time I saw you, you’d be more of a permanent guest of our cosy little home here,” growled the seven-foot Basajaunak.
“Not this time,” replied Catalyst sarcastically as the guard towered over him, doing nothing about opening the door.
“Hey you know that stuff they give you here every now and again for doing this and doing that – you know, your pay? How about earning it? Open the door,” demanded Catalyst making Natalia’s face turn red from embarrassment.
“Are you trying to make me look stupid, Krusnik?” demanded the guard.
“How can I? You've already got that covered,” replied Catalyst.
“Oh why can't you just shut up, Catalyst,” yelled Natalia, smacking him in the arm twice.
The guard and Catalyst laughed for having gotten that one over Natalia.
“Natalia this is Keft. He's first guard of the Gallows. No one comes and no one goes with out him knowing about it. Keft, this is Natalia my friend,” said Catalyst.
Smacking Catalyst’s arm once again for scaring her like that, Natalia held out her hand to the huge Basajaunak.
“Hello, it's nice to meet you,” said Natalia shaking his hand.
“It's nice to meet you as well, young lady. Any friend of Catalyst’s is a friend of mine. You’re Human?” asked Keft.
“I am,” replied Natalia, waiting for the shoe to drop on her new friendship.
“Well I don't have anything against you for being Human, but you be careful around most others, you hear,” said Keft.
“I've learned that lesson already,” said Natalia.
“Well that's sad, but it's good that you know information like that. It'll keep you safe,” said Keft.
“So, everything is all right then, Catalyst?” asked Keft.
“We're on a mission from the King,” replied Catalyst, taking the time to explain everything to him.
Not knowing anything about the Elf’s departure from the Gallows, Keft had nothing to say about their Elf problem.
“Well under the circumstances you'll receive no problems from my guards then,” said Keft, pulling a horn off the wall and blowing the all clear for Natalia and Catalyst to pass through unhindered.
All at once there came howling and screaming from the other side of the door. It sounded as though everyone on the other side was being tortured.
“Don't let that bother you too much, Natalia. They always get angry like that when they think someone is free to leave. The horn I just blew is usually the sign for my guards to let a prisoner pass that's finished serving their sentence. Give me a second, will you? If you people don't shut up – I mean it – if you make one more noise today you'll not be eating for two weeks and no water for three days. Sorry about that, Natalia. Sometimes you’ve got to remind them where they are,” said Keft.
“Poor guards,” said Natalia, smiling.
“No, that's the prisoners,” laughed Keft. “Not to worry – you’re safe enough,” he continued.
“Seems I've heard that before,” said Natalia, looking at Catalyst.
“Been causing trouble again have you Krusnik?” asked Keft.
“Not really, trouble just seems to be where I go,” replied Catalyst.
“Yeah, just seems to be where you go, but not to worry though, Natalia, you’re in good hands with this one. He's a fine upstanding fellow and I'm sure you'll be just fine in your journey,” said Keft.
“See, not everyone distrusts me, Natalia,” said Catalyst.
“I never said I trusted you, but I do believe in you,” said Keft as he opened the door for them to go through.
“More of a hint really,” continued Keft with his hand up, showing them the way.
“Now that's one big Basajaunak,” said Natalia on the other side of the door.
“Yes he is and completely decent as well. Kind of ironic though if you think about where he works,” said Catalyst, looking around him.
“You know, Catalyst, I would think in a place like this you’d see more guards,” said Natalia.
“There's one at the end of each section of hall. That way they’re also at the beginning of the next one, just like Keft,” replied Catalyst making complete sense to Natalia.
“Well let's go,” said Catalyst.
“Just one minute – I have to fix my shoe,” replied Natalia leaning up against the wall while she fixed it. And just like that, Natalia hit a hidden switch, fell sideways through the wall and was now stuck on the other side.
“Are you ready yet?” asked Catalyst.
There was no reply. Catalyst turned round and saw that Natalia had simply vanished. He banged on the door and started yelling for help.
Keft! Keft! Help! But it was to no avail. Keft must have left or thought Catalyst’s calls for help was one of the prisoners yelling out and with the door so thick and solid, Catalyst could only assume that his pounding faded before it reached the other side. With no key to open the door Catalyst was on his own, at least until he found the guard at the end of the hall, but even then getting him to leave his post would be impossible.
She landed on her butt with one shoe in her hand. Looking over the rim of her glasses, Natalia could barely see anything because the room was so dimly lit. She noticed her glasses magnified what little light was in the room and gave it a silver hue.
She stood up and pounded on the wall where she had fallen through as she called out for Catalyst. Listening closely for a reply, she heard nothing at all from the other side.
“How am I going to get out of here?” mumbled Natalia to herself as she walked around the room pushing on the walls and bricks hoping for some kind of switch, lever or button – anything that would open the way out.
She could find nothing, so she figured out that pushing everything and anything was not going to work. Even with her glasses on it was still hard to see unless she moved in closely.
“All right, Natalia, you’re Russian, you’re smart and most important of all you’re a girl! You can think your way out of this,” said Natalia proudly.
Standing back and taking a really good slow look around, Natalia realized the light in the room was coming from a lone crystal that sat in a vessel that hung off the side of the single pillar in the middle of the room.
“Well, Natalia, that's one step closer,” she said to herself as she picked up the crystal and walked from wall to wall studying each one for a release of some kind – a misplaced brick, a hole that looked out of place, anything at all that looked as though it didn't belong.
Catalyst started to panic. How was he ever going to find Natalia? He felt the wall, scoured the floor looking for a trap door, a switch, something, anything, but Catalyst found nothing that would tell him what had happened.
With only one way to go, he headed for the end of the hall to see if the guard there would help him. The next door was five minutes away so Catalyst started running down the hall and around the bend and found himself sliding across the floor, then flipping head over heels, then slamming into the wall.
Shaking his head, Catalyst stood up and took a look around.
“Oh great! Those weren’t here last time,” said Catalyst as he stood looking at forty feet of metal rollers that lay across the hall behind him with at least two more sets that lay in front of him.
Seeing no way to walk across them, at least not without getting hurt, and no way to jump over them, it was just too far for him. “I need to find something to slide on,” thought Catalyst.
Having looked at, pushed and prodded the four walls that surrounded her and finding nothing, Natalia turned to the only place she hadn't looked – the pillar. And there it was, a set of barely visible carvings that with her glasses on and the glow that filled the faded chiselled markings, was lit up like a Christmas tree.
“That's it! These carvings have to be a code to open that door. Now if only I can figure it out,” said Natalia out loud.
Righteousness sets you free, all else keeps you bound. “Hmm, what does that mean?” wondered Natalia as she looked at the coded numbers and colours.
Remembering the word righteous from church and the sermons she'd heard and trying hard to recall what was said and looking at the numbers rather than the colours,
Natalia couldn't help but feel completely lost.
“Okay, stop, think. What do the numbers zero through nine have in common with the bible?” mumbled Natalia.
“Ah! Six is the number of the beast and seven is God’s number. Now what?” continued Natalia as she looked at the carvings.
“With the way this place works, try the bad one first because it'll probably work,” said Natalia still mumbling to herself.
Six, pushed Natalia, with the six clicking into place only once and nothing happening.
“Okay, let’s try six, one and two and three and four and? Ah, there's no way to make a third six out of what's left,” mumbled Natalia as the five numbered carvings clicked back into place.
“Okay, this is nuts. I can't make six, six, six, three times from this, so how about, seven, five and two and three and four,” she said, with nothing but a click to tell her she was still wrong.
Pushing seven and one and six and five and two, click was all that happened.
Stamping her foot in frustration, Natalia backed up, sat down and began to study the carvings once again.
“Okay Natalia, you’re smart, you’re a girl, you can do this,” she muttered, knowing she was halfway there.
On the other side of the door and halfway down the hall, Catalyst was still stuck trying to figure out how he was going to get across the rolling-pin floor. After digging through his fitsall and finding nothing that could help, he stood looking at the rollers and the walls. There was no trip switch and nothing to slide on and no edge to walk. It hit him like a ton of bricks, making him shake his head for only thinking of it now. Backing up against the wall, Catalyst pushed off as hard as he could as he ran for the rollers and dived chest first onto them, sliding straight across to the other side hitting the cobbles and rolling right into the wall, bringing him to an abrupt stop. With only one more to go, Catalyst pushed off once again, slamming into the wall.
“That wasn't so bad,” said Catalyst as he wobbled to a stand.
“To tell the truth, I've seen better,” said the guard standing at the door watching Catalyst wipe out.
“You’ve been standing here all this time? Didn't you hear me calling for help?” asked Catalyst.
“Yes and yes,” replied the guard.
“And?” demanded Catalyst.
“I don't leave my post,” said the guard with a smug smile on his face.
“Did you hear the Keft’s horn?” asked Catalyst in disbelief.
“I heard it, and all that meant was free passage to whomever was coming down the hall. Now be on your way,” ordered the guard, looking down on Catalyst still wobbling and opening the door for him.
“But my friend – she's disappeared back there on the other side of the metal rollers. I need your help to find her,” said Catalyst, standing his ground with the guard.
“Not my problem,” said the guard, pushing Catalyst through the door and locking it behind him.
With the door now firmly closed in his face, Catalyst kicked it as hard as he could. He stood there not know what to do and took a moment to think.
Still sitting on the floor studying the carvings as she racked her brain, Natalia thought, “Hmm, I wonder. What if the code is colour coded as well as numeric, that would make sense,” She felt silly for not seeing what was staring her right in the face.
Standing back in front of the carvings Natalia pushed two and green, three and blue, four and red and after a few seconds all six carvings clicked back into place all at once but this time there was a sound that Natalia hadn't heard before.
Stepping back and looking at the puzzle Natalia knew she had got one step closer. As she held the crystal up she reached out from where she was standing and tried again.
Two and green, three and blue, four and red – Natalia watched the whole face of the carving closely as everything reset itself, and waited just the extra second for the noise. Natalia watched as the + at the top of the puzzle span back into the X and dropped back into place.
“That's it,” said Natalia confidently as she stepped back to the puzzle and pushed the carvings one more time.
Two and green, three and blue, four and red and grabbing the + before it could spin back into the X, Natalia shoved it back into its slot and with a click the sound of gears spinning could clearly be heard.
“Ha ha, 777+, now that's righteous. Let's see Catalyst figure that out,” said Natalia.
Turning to the wall she had fallen through, Natalia watched to see the passage open up and let her out – there it was, a way out even if it was a crawl space.
Looking cautiously around the stone door, Natalia’s face fell as she looked into the small tunnel.
“I've got to crawl through that after all this work!” she groaned as she looked at all the dead bugs, dust and gross stuff on the floor.
With her crystal in hand and two crawls in, Natalia’s eyes opened wide as the sound of growling filled the tunnel in front of her.
Catalyst was not able to get the guard to open the door for him. He knew he wouldn't be able to get through the ceiling before the Acquittals had him. He didn’t trusting the guard not to push him through that door as well, so Catalyst found himself with only one real option – to break through the cell wall right beside him.
Pushing off the wall behind him, Catalyst kicked the door as hard as he could with both feet only to land on his butt. The cell door didn’t budge. He got back on his feet and tried and tried again as he unknowingly cracked the latch that held the bolt in place. Kicking off from the wall one last time with all he had, the door flew open and he went crashing face first into an old stinky mattress filled with bugs and straw that looked as though it had been peed on more than once.
Coughing, choking and wiping the gross stuff off, Catalyst looked at the wall between him and the last cell. Knowing he couldn't kick his way through it, he needed a tool, something he could dig with, because if he couldn't go through it, he would go under it.
Digging through what was left in the cell from its last guest, Catalyst found a piece of metal no bigger than his arm that looked as though whoever owned it had been scratching notches into it to mark the days spent there.
Kneeling at the base of the wall and scraping away the dirt and rubble, Catalyst noticed a line of damp mortar. He ran the metal edge down it and found a new and easy spot to dig through. Digging, scraping, grinding and prying as fast as he could with pieces flying everywhere, Catalyst knew it would still take time.
Natalia tried hard not to make a sound as she backed out of her crawl space. The growling moved closer but whatever was coming Natalia knew it was aware of her. Peering out from behind the pillar, Natalia watched as a big black ball of fur came out and started towards her.
“Nice wolf, nice wolf,” whispered Natalia trying not to show fear or aggression as she and the wolf circled around the pillar. When the wolf was in the right spot, Natalia backed up gently to the opening of her crawl space.
Spinning around and dropping to her hands and knees Natalia scurried into and through the tunnel as she made her way to the end, squishing every single bug dead and alive under her hands while its stench filled her with the urge to vomit. The wolf was growling right behind her. It nipped at her shoes as Natalia reached the end.
Hanging her head in defeat as she faced another wall with no time or way to work out how she would get it open, if it opened at all, she noticed a small beam of light shining on her hand. With one good push, Natalia found herself in another room with a locked door and a small boy chained to the wall.
She stopped dead in her tracks. All she could do was try and free the boy, forgetting about herself. With her first step towards him, the wolf pounced in front of her, growling, its hair standing on end. Natalia was backed up against the wall.
Screaming and with his bones cracking, the small boy changed into a man, kicking the air between him and Natalia as he pulled on the chains that bound him to the wall.
As she stood and watched, Natalia could see that whatever this creature was, it had gone mad long ago. Shocked by its change all Natalia could do was watch as it changed back into the small boy with eyes that begged to be free. All at once it bit off its thumb and slipped its hand free of the cuff. It grabbed the wolf, biting, ripping and tearing at its fur.
The wolf broke free of the creature and stood between it and Natalia. Natalia could only watch as the wolf attacked him and with blood flying everywhere Natalia turned her back and waited for it to be her turn.
When the room was silent Natalia glanced over her shoulder only to see the wolf sitting at her feet and leaning on her legs as though to offer comfort after everything she had just seen. She sat down to catch her breath and the wolf snuggled up beside her.
“So I guess all that time you were really trying to save me weren't you, boy?” said Natalia to the wolf. The wolf got up and walked over to the crawl space. It stood on a particular cobble, closing the door.
Natalia heard the sound of pounding and scraping coming through the wall from Catalyst’s digging, so she began backing up, not realizing she was now holding the wolf. She was pulling it back with her as she tried to protect it from whatever was coming through.
With the metal frame now sticking through the wall, Natalia’s heart was pounding with fear as one big rock dropped followed by another and another, giving Catalyst enough room to stick his silver head through for a look see.
“Catalyst!” yelled Natalia, running and grabbing him by the head. She didn't realize in her excitement that she was only choking him, not pulling him through.
“Wait...wait...Natalia, let me get this wall open more,” gasped Catalyst.
With Natalia and Catalyst pulling on the wall from both sides it wasn't long before they had a hole big enough for them to walk through.
Catalyst went to hug Natalia, so grateful she was okay. A strange growl came from behind him at his third step toward Natalia, stopping him right in his tracks. Catalyst just stood looking at Natalia for help.
“Sh...sh,” whispered Natalia as she stroked the wolf’s fur to calm him while taking Catalyst by the hand.
“See friends...see,” said Natalia to the wolf, showing that Catalyst was to be trusted.
With the tension in the room easing, Catalyst took a look around. He saw what was left of the boy lying dead and stared at Natalia and the wolf.
“Wow!” was all Catalyst could say.
“I know. I feel sick now,” said Natalia.
“Why?” asked Catalyst.
“Are you kidding, Catalyst? That creature, whatever it was – I mean first it was a boy, then a man, then a boy again. Anyway whatever it was it's just been ripped apart,” replied Natalia, stunned by Catalyst’s coldness.
“Well count yourself lucky. You just met a Morph and survived. Most don't walk away you know,” replied Catalyst.
“Metamorph?” thought Natalia, twisting her face, confused.
“No Catalyst, I never metamorphed. I'm Natalia and always have been,” said Natalia as she held her hands up while looking at him as though he were nuts.
“No, no, that's not what I mean. I didn't mean you metamorphed, I meant you met-a-Morph, as in you met this creature, like hi how are you, that kind of met a Morph,” laughed Catalyst, his red eyes twinkling.
“They’re very dangerous. They can change from man to boy in just seconds. They try and trick people into thinking they’re a child and in need of help and then when anyone gets close enough, the creature grabs on and morphs into a man and eats them alive. For those that have got away after being bitten, the poison from their spit...well they’re never right in the head again. Here, see how its skin is pink except for here around the joints where it's blue and brown? That's the bruising and scar tissue from all the morphing. You'll want to be watching out for that on people,” continued Catalyst as he pointed everything out to Natalia.
Standing there looking down at the wolf, Natalia gave her hero a big hug and kiss.
“Now why would anyone leave an animal with a creature like this?” asked Natalia, looking up at Catalyst.
The guards have to feed these things and the wolf is obviously here to offer some protection. These creatures are hard enough to find in the first place, never mind having to round one up. Should it escape, they would use the wolf to track it I think, and the wolf would alert the guard outside if it got loose,” replied Catalyst.
“So, the Gallows – not so bad, huh?” asked Natalia throwing his lie in his face.
“You know, Natalia, I thought I was going to have to dig through a lot more than this wall to find you. What happened? How did you get here?” asked Catalyst, changing the subject and curious to know.
“I leaned up against the wall to fix my shoe. The next thing I know I'm sitting on my butt in a room with almost no light at all and then I found a puzzle, solved it, and crawled through a tunnel here. By the way, you have some bugs in your hair,” replied Natalia brushing away what she put there.
“A puzzle – what kind of puzzle?” asked Catalyst.
“Take this crystal back there and you can see for yourself, but don't try and solve the puzzle because I don't think you'll get it. The answer is 777+,” replied Natalia, smiling with girl power.
“Well I guess we'll never know now, will we?” was all Catalyst could say.
“Come on, Natalia, let's get out of here,” said Catalyst and took her by the hand.
Stepping back out into the hallway of the Gallows, the wolf followed only to run down the hall and disappear into a vent of sorts, big enough only for him.
“That was strange. Why do you think he left?” asked Natalia.
“He's done his job, so not much reason for him to be here I guess,” replied Catalyst.
As they walked down the hall a guard came into sight and it was then that Catalyst noticed just how eerily quiet it had been. Since he had been in search of Natalia he didn’t know when the place turned silent.
“Do you hear that?” asked Catalyst.
“Hear what?” replied Natalia.
“Nothing and that's just it – it's way too quiet in here,” replied Catalyst.
“Nice to see you again, Krusnik,” said the guard as they reached him.
“And you too,” replied Catalyst, sniffing the air.
With a look on her face that screamed, “What are you doing?” Natalia just stood looking at Catalyst.
“Look, he's the only Basajaunak that I've ever met that insists on bathing everyday. He doesn't stink,” replied Catalyst, giving Natalia the impression his answer was more an invitation. With an expressionless face Natalia just stood there in refusal.
“Ha ha!” laughed the Basajaunak, seeing Catalyst had no idea what he'd just done.
“So, why is it so quiet in here?” asked Catalyst once the guard had stopped laughing.
“After that creepy old Bailey escaped, seems almost everyone else in here thought they could as well, and since the only real way out of here is through us guards and then the gates, they must have thought Bailey went through the roof and I suppose they tried to follow him, and we all know what going up there gets you, and that was pretty much the end of the populace in these two sections, but don't tell Keft, okay? We're going to blame it on that new guard you just passed – he's such a whorble,” replied the guard.
“Whorble, what's that?” asked Natalia.
“Nothing really, but you can tell by the tone of voice it's insulting,” replied the guard.
“Forget the guard, who's Bailey?” asked Catalyst, almost drooling with excitement.
“Bailey? He's a dirty, vile, filthy, rotten, evil old Elf that went mad and if there are any meaner I've never met them,” replied the guard.
“I think we have,” said Natalia and Catalyst at the same time.
“He's tried to capture and cook us more than once, but we were too much for him and we kept getting away,” said Natalia proudly.
“Yeah, barely got away,” said Catalyst, being realistic.
“By an inch or a mile, Catalyst, I don't see the difference, away is away!” said Natalia overruling his attempt to crush her.
“No arguing with that logic, Krusnik,” said the guard, almost as proud of Natalia as she was.
“I guess not,” replied Catalyst, at a loss for words.
“By the way, your Morph is dead,” said Catalyst, letting the guard know he would not have to feed it any more.
“I know, I heard,” said the guard, pointing to his ears that were as big as his head.
“You don't miss much with those, do you?” said Catalyst bugging the huge Basajaunak.
“If you heard, why didn't you come and help me?” asked Natalia, stunned by his lack of concern.
“That's what the wolf is for,” replied the guard simply. “Besides I have my duties here, although I admit there's not much to do as of late. Nope, this place is pretty empty now, and speaking of empty, best you two be on your way,” said the guard in a bored tone of voice as he opened the door for them and pushed them both through.
As Natalia and Catalyst walked round the circle hallway from one corridor to the next they walked without incident, easily making their way past the small but annoying traps.
“Where are all these shops you told me were here, Catalyst?” asked Natalia.
“Well, it's more like a shop and it's more of a stand than it is a shop,” laughed Catalyst.
“Why not just tell me that? I would still have come in here with you,” said Natalia shaking her head.
“I don't know,” smiled Catalyst.
On the outside of the Gallows stood Bailey. Knowing he couldn't go through the gate for fear of being caught, he had crept around the wall looking for the very spot he crawled out of the night the Clique set him free. When he found it, he got down on his knees and started to dig out the same tunnel.
“I can't believe I'm breaking into this place,” mumbled the Elf as he recalled every single reason for his hatred of it.
As he dug underneath the Gallows, passing the room Natalia had been locked in and into his old cell, Bailey cursed Natalia’s and Catalyst’s names a thousand times.
“Those rotten little brats, had she not hit me with that axe I could have taken on everyone in this place and had my revenge on them for what they've done to me. Now I have to dig like an animal. I'll get them, I'll get them, I'll kill them, I'll cook them, I'll eat them both!” screamed and slobbered the vile old Elf into the air.
Realizing what he had done, Bailey quickly shut his mouth and looked around for any guards that might have heard him. No one was in sight, so Bailey continued to rage as he dug his way through to his old cell.
“No one knows this place like I do. I swear there'll be no escape,” mumbled the old Elf as he lifted the rock that lay between him and his cell.
Stepping silently to the door, the old Elf slipped open the steel plate that covered the barred window. He listened hard for a moment and hearing nothing, reached through with his right hand and slipped his finger tip into the lock, forcing the turn as hard as he could. The lock opened.
He pulled his hand back, leaving his whole nail and half his fingertip in the lock. The Elf just smiled at the wound and gave the pus and blood a lick just to taste his success.
“It'll be worth it,” whispered the Elf to his finger as he headed across the hall to the opening Natalia had fallen through.
With a crooked push of a brick, the Elf stepped into the room and pushed the symbols for 777, grabbed the +, shoved it into place and waited for the wolf to come through the crawl space, ready to beat it to death.
With no wolf, and no wonder, the Elf continued to make his way through to the next room.
Crawling from the tunnel and seeing the Morph lying there dead, the Elf just grinned. He had never liked those creatures anyway. Natalia’s perfume was no longer being drowned out by the stench from the tunnel, so the Elf knew he was right behind them.
Smiling at the hole in the wall, the Elf walked to the cell door and peeked through the small window. He saw the shadow of the guard and knew he couldn't go that way. Knowing that the third guard would be at the far end of the next hallway, he quietly headed for the hole in the wall and took another look at the Morph.
“Far be it from me to waste a good meal,” mumbled the Elf as he walked over to indulge himself in some fresh meat while Natalia and Catalyst moved a little further down the halls.
When he had had his fill, the Elf stepped through the hole and looked through the window. He could see no one so he gently, slowly opened the door and slipped across the hall unnoticed. He picked up a piece of old wood and threw it into the cell he had just left, hitting a table that crashed into a pile of old broken metal, then he closed the door of the cell door he was standing in and diving under a filthy old mattress. He knew the guard would be there any second and not being in any condition to take him on, Bailey could only hide.
Lying under the pile of rotting filth the old Elf felt humiliated. He had once been a great Elf and was now reduced to cowering. There was nothing he could do about it so he just lay there in shame, waiting for the guard to do his job.
The guard took a good look through the window and, satisfied that the sound he had heard came from the room Catalyst had made a mess of, the guard returned to his post.
Creeping out from underneath the mattress, the Elf gently moved a chair underneath a hole left by the last guest, happy he didn't have to dig a hole through the ceiling himself.
Poking his head through the hole, he hoped that with the death of whoever it was that last lived there, the Acquittals would now be gone.
Finding himself surrounded by spark bugs glowing hard, Bailey soon heard the hissing of the Acquittals. He fell off the chair and crashed into the pile of rot and garbage, sending everything everywhere in the room. Knowing he was now caught, the Elf made a dash for the door and across the hall.
“Bailey!” yelled the guard.
Jumping through the hole in the wall, hitting the cobble trip switch and diving back into the crawl space, pulling the door closed behind him, the Elf headed back to the room Natalia had found herself trapped in.
With the sound of the guard’s yelling and only one of them knowing what was going on, and fighting for control of the lock as they both tried to open the door, the Elf had time enough to get to the room. By throwing another trip brick, Bailey was now standing in the hall outside his old cell.
“Bailey, Bailey,” yelled the second and third guards as they sounded an alarm alerting Keft, who was on the other side of the door from where the Elf was standing.
Fighting to open his cell door and with three guards on their way, Bailey kicked the door open, slammed it behind him, shoved an old chair underneath a freshly punched hole, picked up the rock to his tunnel and jumped in feet first, slamming it into place just as Keft’s foot kicked open the cell door.
Back outside, Bailey threw enough dirt back into the hole to block sunshine from getting through any cracks that might be there as he listened to the three guards yelling, “Bailey, you dirty rotten good for nothing, wait till we find you!”
Knowing there was only one reason Natalia and Catalyst would want to go through the Gallows, the old Elf ran for the sheer cliff knowing this was his only hope of catching up to them and saving his life.
“If I can't get you there, I'll get you out here where no one can help you,” laughed the Elf, running for the cliff.
With guards rushing by them from what seemed like every section, Natalia and Catalyst tried asking what was going on, but got no answer. They walked on without worrying, moving through the never-ending circle.
“How much further till we get to this stand, Catalyst?” asked Natalia, making fun of him.
“Well we're almost finished walking this place, so I would think about five minutes,” replied Catalyst without caring what she thought. She was safe and that's all that mattered.
As they went out through the last door there stood the only shopkeeper in all the Gallows. She was dressed from head to toe in a swirled striped fur suit with matching hat, which made Natalia burst out laughing.
“You’re the only thing I've seen in this whole place that doesn't belong!” laughed Natalia as she had never laughed before.
“What do you mean by that?” asked the woman, laughing right along with her.
“Well look at you. You look so jolly and happy you’re like a candy cane. It's the last place I would expect to see anyone dressed like you. You stick right out,” laughed Natalia as she tried to bring herself under control.
“Well if you don't stand out in a crowd how's anyone supposed to see you? Because all you've really done is blend in,” laughed the woman as she dug her hands into her apron and pulled out two fistfuls of gold coins.
“So what can I do for the two of you today?” asked the shopkeeper.
“Well,” said Catalyst sorting through his fitsall.
“Sorry about my friend here, but he is just a boy after all,” said Natalia as they waited for Catalyst.
“We would like to trade for food,” said Catalyst, still digging.
“Okay, what do you have to trade then?” asked the shopkeeper.
Rummaging through his fitsall and not being able to find anything, Catalyst emptied it onto the counter – first his blanket, then his candy, his rope dart and his boots, leaving only what belonged to Natalia and the food his Mother brought them in the bag.
“I do believe we can work with this,” said the woman, gazing at the rope dart.
Seeing the look in her eyes Catalyst quickly removed the rope dart from the counter.
“Not this,” said Catalyst wrapping it around his shoulder and making sure he still had the jar with the Atropos Styx for Natalia.
With the woman looking down at the blanket Catalyst knew he would not have that, come the night. She smiled at Catalyst and much to his surprise the woman took the blanket, candy and boots in one swoop as she brushed it all behind the counter.
Turning around and grabbing huge handfuls of this and that, the woman handed Catalyst enough meat jerky of some kind, dried fish and fruits for a week.
“There you go, a fair trade as far as I can tell,” said the woman, clearly on the better end of the deal.
“Tea?” asked Natalia hopefully.
“Right you are, tea it is,” replied the woman, handing Catalyst a fair-sized pouch as she smiled kindly at Natalia.
“I don't really need a blanket tonight. I can build a fire to keep warm,” said Catalyst.
“You certainly can, because you’re not getting mine,” said Natalia taking a few pieces of jerky from the counter to ease her hunger.
With their stuff in hand and heading up the stairs to the ladder, Natalia stopped and looked out over the roof of the Gallows.
“Now, Catalyst, tell me something will you. Why did we not just climb the roof and walk across it right to here and save all the trouble?” asked Natalia as she looked at the curve of the roof.
“Here's why,” replied Catalyst. He picked up a handful of loose dirt and rocks, threw it on to the rooftop and watched it slide down. Razor-sharp blades popped two inches out straight across in a line three rows wide from one end to the other, turning every piece of everything that Catalyst threw into dust.
“That's why. Remember this is a prison before anything else,” continued Catalyst.
“I see,” said Natalia. “If I were alone in this world I would die,” she thought, grateful for Catalyst.
“Let's go, Natalia. Up the ladder,” said Catalyst climbing ahead of her.
They found the bridge at the top of the ladder. Natalia was now weary from the better part of the day spent under extreme mental stress, so Catalyst knew the climb across the bridge was not going to be easy on her. The bridge may have looked a mile long but with its ascent of two miles high, it was much more than that. Knowing she could rest on the other side, Catalyst pushed her on.
Standing at the base of the sheer cliff right under the bridge, having gathered his strength, the Elf knew he would have to climb as fast as he could if he were to catch Natalia and Catalyst at the top.
Jumping made him wince and he realized the pain from his wounds would now force a much slower ascent to the top.