Chapter 7: THE MUGWADS
They walked up to a tree as wide and round as a house is square. It stood at least one hundred and fifty feet high. Natalia stood there quietly exhausted, as Catalyst reached for a leaver so well blended with the tree it was barely visible. He gave it one good pull and without so much as the tiniest sound, it crept back into its resting position.
“Sh, I can hear someone coming,” said Catalyst, moving to stand on the other side of Natalia.
The sound of spinning of cogwheels and gears coming from inside the tree was intriguing, and as a hidden door began to open up, it offered relief enough that Natalia sighed as she thought that finally she would get some rest. But she stiffened up at the sight of the almost Human being standing there. Catalyst pointed to her as though she was the one that had pulled the leaver. Even though this creature was nothing like the Hybrid Natalia had seen on the plateau, she felt as though her thoughts about rest had been premature.
Standing in the doorway was a woman wearing a beige knee-length suede dress that hung off her shoulders. She had high-heeled boots to match and finely carved jewellery that could easily have been made from bone with a ridge that stuck out right above her eyes. It went straight across her forehead carrying one finely groomed eyebrow that was almost hidden by her rich dark haircut scowl that Natalia could easily have envied it. She expected the woman’s voice to sound like rocks grinding together, but she was amazed that the woman spoke so beautifully and was so well mannered.
“Hello Catalyst, how are you?” asked the woman, clearly happy to see him.
“I'm fine. How are you, Pepper?” replied Catalyst.
“I'm well. Thank you for asking,” replied Pepper.
“Pepper, this is my friend Natalia,” said Catalyst, sounding almost proud.
“Natalia, that's a beautiful name. Don't worry, I know it was Catalyst who pulled the lever,” said Pepper, shaking Natalia’s hand. They looked at each other wondering what the big deal was for doing that. With a quick glance at him, they both just accepted the fact he's a boy, leaving him feeling awkward.
“Well don't just stand there – come in, come in, let's get this door locked,” said Pepper, ushering them inside. With the spin of the tiniest knob Natalia watched in amazement as she saw the gears and cogwheels spinning. A click locked the door just as the ones from the Gallows did.
Natalia could hardly believe her eyes. The floor was made out of one huge block of wood that had been cut into pieces depicting a group of people gathered at a ball. It was stained in every colour that a painting would have been. Never had Natalia seen such a work of art. It matched the perfectly crafted staircase that wound one hundred feet up to a semi-open-concept second floor sitting room that one could just see from the entrance, as the ceiling held a perfectly polished metal plate that reflected better than a mirror.
Pepper stood off to the side holding her hand up to show them to the lift, and with the switch tripped, everyone was hurled to the second floor.
“Catalyst, does your Mother know where you are?” asked Pepper as she sat them down.
“Of course,” replied Catalyst once again explaining their quest for the locking crystals and diamond ring.
“My, my, my, what an awful King, sending you children on such a dangerous mission and not even one guard to watch over you,” said Pepper, having listened intently to the story.
“Well as long as your Mother knows where you are and what you’re doing I guess that's good enough, but I don't think she would be very impressed with me if I didn't offer you a place to rest for the night. So come on, let's get you something to eat and a bed for the night.” Pepper heading for the stairs that led to the third floor and kitchen of the tree house.
Reaching the top of the stairs and panting from their climb, Pepper left Natalia and Catalyst sitting in another one of her sitting rooms while she went off to make them all an evening meal. She returned before they knew it and took them to the only spot she enjoyed eating.
Walking out onto her overlook that sat high above the village, Pepper pulled Natalia to the edge and waved her hand at the sights, showing Natalia the walkways and shops.
“What do you think of my little hideaway, Natalia?” asked Pepper. Natalia stood looking at the most beautiful cityscape she had ever seen. If anything came close to this beauty it would have to be the waterfalls of the plateau.
Faces were carved into the sides of trees telling stories of adventures. One tree connected to the next, some by tree trunk tunnels, some by open tree trunk walkways, each one leading to and from the shops and cafes filled with carefree Mugwads as they went about their business. Lanterns filled the evening with a soft glow. Natalia felt Pepper’s hand as she gently guided her to the table for their meal.
“I love this so much and I've only been here five minutes,” replied Natalia to Pepper’s question.
“Well not to worry, Natalia. Almost all of it can be seen from the table – that's the reason why I love eating here on the overlook. You see those faces carved onto the sides of the trees? They’re the faces of those who have meant a lot to us over the years. We honour them by reminding the world they once existed. Some are still alive and only ever came here once but because of what they gave, they’re up there too,” said Pepper with great respect.
The flavour of the food was like nothing Natalia had ever had before. She ate in silence, enjoying every single bite. With the long day behind her now, Natalia nodded off before her plate was half finished.
Taking Natalia to where she would sleep for the night, Pepper returned to Catalyst.
“Not tired, Catalyst?” asked Pepper.
“No, I slept last night and today,” replied Catalyst more interested in savouring his meal than anything else.
“Must be nice being Krusnik and not having to sleep every night. I would love to spend more time up here looking out over all this,” said Pepper as she stood and gazed out into the night.
“But I'm not, so I'm off to bed. There's a blanket on the couch should you need one,” continued Pepper smiling as she turned and left.
Taking the blanket from inside along with another helping of dinner, Catalyst returned to the overlook only to realize he was as wide awake as he was alone, but with the view and Pepper’s cooking he didn't notice the hours as they slipped by.
“I love to watch the sunrise from here,” said Pepper as she placed her hand on Catalyst’s shoulder, scaring him right out of his daze.
“Yeah, but you only just went to bed a while ago and the sun won't be up for hours,” said Catalyst, wiping the leftovers from his plate off his shirt.
“I went to bed seven hours ago, Catalyst. One of the reasons I love this overlook so much is that it’s hard not to get lost in the beauty of it,” replied Pepper with a smile as she pointed Catalyst’s head towards the faint pink of the rising sun.
Standing and sipping their tea, Pepper pointed out to Catalyst all the differences in the village since his visit a year ago and watched the smile on his face grow at the sound of Natalia’s feet coming from behind them.
“You slept too long, Natalia. You missed a gorgeous sunrise,” said Pepper.
Saying nothing, Natalia just stood there looking at Pepper. Her appearance was now so noticeably Neanderthal that any sunrise was worth missing just to see her. Natalia couldn't bring herself to ask how.
Looking out over the treetop village as it woke, only silence filled the air until Natalia started to ask questions.
“Are all these trees homes, Pepper?” asked Natalia knowing that Pepper already knew she knew that there were cafes and shops down there.
“No, only the ones that circle the outside of the village as mine does. The ones in the middle are shops of all kinds, cafes, lunch counters, libraries, clothing stores, fruit and veggie shops. There's a couple of schools, mind you they’re not big but they work for our needs and there are dance and meeting halls, things like that,” replied Pepper wondering what the real question was Natalia wanted to ask.
“How big is this place?” asked Natalia, continuing to break the silence.
“You see the other side of the village over there?” asked Pepper as she pointed off into the distance.
“Yes of course I see it,” replied Natalia.
“Well it's ten times that far to the other side. You see Natalia, even from this high up you can't see it but this place runs down a slope. Trust me, it's huge,” replied Pepper.
“Hey, here's an idea – if the two of you want to stay for a day or two, I would be happy to show it to you. That means you as well, Catalyst. After last time you were here, I decided you were never to be left alone again. See, Natalia, he's been here before. Besides after the day the two of you had yesterday I'm sure you could use a few days’ rest,” offered Pepper.
“I don't think a day or two will matter much, so if you want to stay and rest we can – after all you’re only Human,” said Catalyst smiling. He knew full well the blood bath, the Blemmye spawn, searching for the cure would all have taken its toll on her.
Looking out over the overlook with wonder at all the things she could see, Natalia quickly accepted.
“Well let's go freshen up and again, Catalyst, that means you too, then we'll head to the markets and get something to eat. Since I have to open my shop for a few hours it'll give us time to talk and really get to know one another. After that we can go sight seeing. How's that?” asked Pepper.
“That would be wonderful,” replied Natalia, summoning up her best manners.
With everyone fresh and clean, Pepper led them downstairs, stopping halfway. With the lightest push of a knot in the wall Natalia watched happily as the hidden door opened up. Walking along the walkway, Natalia took notice of almost every single Mugwad she passed and how like Humans they were. There were the fat ones, the skinny ones, the tall ones, the short ones, some so very beautiful and others so ugly. As primitive as it all was, it was still very metropolitan and reminded Natalia of Yekaterinburg.
“We may live a more simple way of life on the surface, but we're really quite with-it,” said Pepper, noticing the wonder in Natalia’s eyes.
After a quick bite to eat from a lunch counter, they opened Pepper’s shop. From one end to the other the walls were covered with peppers in red, yellow, green and blue.
“Now you know why they call me Pepper! I grow the best peppers in all of Kyopelivuori, and you know what's weird – they've been calling me Pepper for so long that try as I might I can't remember my real name,” said Pepper with a grin.
“Oh the irony,” thought Natalia as she stood there looking at Pepper.
With the customers coming and going and Pepper’s peppers all but gone, the crowd started to thin out. Natalia helped Pepper feed the empty plants while Catalyst sat quietly unnoticed as they talked.
“Now Natalia, I know this morning when you saw me, there was something on your mind and it wasn't the village, so how about just telling me?” asked Pepper.
“Well, where I'm from we have these places called museums and they’re full of history, things like bones, skeletons, old tools, things like that.”
“Things like that?” asked Pepper, pointing to the museum down the street.
“Yes,” replied Natalia smiling and feeling a little foolish.
“Anyway, Pepper, they have some displays depicting early man. And to tell you the truth, they look like you; only we call them Neanderthals not Mugwads. The people that study these things say that the Neanderthal wasn't much smarter than an ape. I don't mean to be rude,” said Natalia feeling about as awkward as anyone could for saying what she said.
Pepper burst into laughter.
“Ah, dear child, first of all they’re called historians, the people who study that stuff. Secondly you’re not rude. Telling the truth is the most polite thing anyone can do because it stops others from feeling foolish when they find out the truth. No you’re not rude, you’re ignorant that's all. So allow me to educate you. Here have a seat, but first of all don't repeat to anyone else what you just told me, okay? We have a saying: sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me. So best keep that stuff to yourself. Some of us still believe in that sort of barbarism, but not me,” said Pepper as she and Natalia made themselves comfortable.
“We Neanderthals, as you call us, once lived on Earth. As a matter of fact we were very advanced – so much so that life became too easy. At one point, everything that made life worth living was taken away from us – the accomplishment of gaining anything for ourselves and the feeling of success that went along with it was no more. All we wanted was taken care of by machines. If we wanted something to eat, something to wear or if you needed to go somewhere, even the simplest chore done, we got the automaton to do it, make it, get it,” said Pepper as she stopped for a breath.
“Carry you,” chipped in Natalia jokingly.
“Oh yes that too. The automatons were the size and shape of us Mugwads, so if that's what those on Earth wanted that's what they got. This way we need not do anything for ourselves if we didn't want to, and no one worried, worked or farmed. Life became drab,” said Pepper.
“So then...why here? Why all of this?” asked Natalia, pointing to everything around them.
“A few ancestors decided to go back to a very, very old way of life, one not seen for so long it was all but forgotten. They wanted to do things for themselves that made living feel right, like farming, cooking, cleaning, raising cattle, even making their own clothes. Now there weren’t many of them that chose this way of life, but those that did eventually broke off all contact with those they left behind,” replied Pepper.
“Well that explains a lot. All the depictions that I've seen show your people standing around fires dressed in animal skins, cooking chunks of meat or standing around something they had just killed with clubs in their hands,” said Natalia, fighting the urge to laugh.
Pepper burst out laughing at the thought of what that must look like.
“Well they had to wear something I'm sure, but I'm also sure your historians have the wrong idea. See, Natalia, although all this happened before I was born, I've read all the books on this subject that my people wrote and so far I can promise you the only thing your people have right is the fact that we were there. Anyway, there was a meteor shower that hit the Earth and instead of impacting, the meteors exploded high in the atmosphere. After that a plague started moving through the lands, slowly killing off every living creature, Mugwads included. Although they may have had the simple pleasures they sought, they had the dangers as well. Now here's the really interesting part – no one knows what became of those Mugwads that our ancestors left behind, so I like to think that with all their advancements they somehow came up with a vaccine for the plague. It had two side effects – it mutated them into Humans and wiped their minds, forcing them to start off as a child race,” said Pepper, destroying all Natalia’s preconceptions.
“Can I ask a personal question, Pepper?” asked Natalia.
“Of course, ask away. That's why we’re here talking, remember, to really get to know one another,” replied Pepper.
“Before I ask, where's Catalyst?” asked Natalia having forgotten all about him.
“I'm right here,” said Catalyst, pushing a pepper plant out of his way.
“Catalyst, there's nothing for you to do here, so why not go to the Platt’s candy shop and get a treat for yourself,” said Pepper, handing him some coins and giving him a look that said be good.
“You got it,” replied Catalyst, happy to be getting away from what was clearly becoming girl talk.
“Okay, go Natalia – what was your question?” asked Pepper enjoying her talk with Natalia.
“How old are you, Pepper?” asked Natalia, smiling as though she was asking for the keys to a vault.
Popping her head up to take a quick look around for anyone that might be listening, Pepper eased back into her chair.
“Although I've not kept a proper calendar all my life, I've counted two thousand Transitional Moon Phases since I started keeping track, so I really can't be sure, but somewhere around two thousand two hundred,” replied Pepper very conservatively.
As Natalia sat there listening to the answer, the echo of her mother answering in almost the same way whenever she was asked her age (I'm twenty nine) rang through her mind.
“Wow, you look so young. Not a day over forty,” replied Natalia to Pepper in the same smart-mouth manner she would answer her own mother, making Pepper smile at not being able to get that one over another girl, whereas men would just shut up and accept it.
“Well, anyway my best guess is the Mugwads age about one year your time for every fifty that pass here, and Catalyst is like his mother. Once he's fully grown he won't age at all,” said Pepper, impressed with Natalia’s honesty.
“She's calling herself Anastasia now,” said Natalia.
“Who is – Catalyst’s mother?” asked Pepper.
“Yes,” replied Natalia.
“Finally, now I can stop calling her Krusnik. It seemed so rude,” said Pepper.
“You know, it's like the people of this world will live forever,” said Natalia, amazed by their longevity.
“Well my people do live about one hundred and twenty years, your time that is, so I think I will live to see another four thousand Moon Phases,” said Pepper.
“Time works so differently here,” said Natalia.
“No, it doesn't. Time works the same here as it does on Earth and that I know for a fact. I studied it when people came here from Earth all those years ago. It's aging that works differently here,” replied Pepper, setting the record straight.
“So your people came through the same portal as I did then, which means in a sense we’re almost related. We’re from the same place, Russia,” said Natalia trying to build a closer bond with Pepper.
“You mean the portal here in Kyopelivuori? No, we came through a portal in Svartalfheim, the Elfs’ realm,” replied Pepper.
“So where on Earth are you from then?” asked Natalia.
I couldn't possibly tell you what you call the place today, but from what I've read, it had huge mountains, lots and lots of trees, rivers and lakes. If it helps, there was one lake I read about particularly it was a bright green and said to have healing properties, but where this place is, I don't know,” replied Pepper.
“Oh well, I thought you might have had Russian blood in you,” said Natalia, clearly disappointed.
“Natalia, even if the Mugwads that came here were from your Russia, it would be you that held Mugwad blood in you. See, we were the before the Human race came into being. Remember the vaccine that I told you about? In all I've read, not once was your race mentioned and then all of a sudden you’re alive,” replied Pepper with a gentle smile.
“Right, right, right, you’re right. Sorry, I forgot the Neanderthals were before Humankind,” said Natalia in agreement.
“You know, Natalia, it was so long ago and so much has changed who's to say one way or the other where we're from exactly? So let's just say we are from Russia. How's that?” asked Pepper, seeing the sadness in Natalia’s eyes.
Natalia smiled and looked pleased.
“How long have the Mugwads been here?” asked Natalia.
“By my best estimation, along with the books my ancestors wrote, our arrival dates back fifty thousand years, but even that I can't be sure of,” replied Pepper.
Sitting there Natalia began to smile.
“Now what are you smiling at?” asked Pepper.
“Well from the sound of it and from what I've seen, there are portals all over this world, even in the waters. The creatures and beings that people report seeing where I come from but can never prove they've seen, all come from here. Anyone that hears this kind of stuff in my world thinks these people are crazy. I'm starting to believe every one of these sightings to be true and I just think it's funny,” replied Natalia.
“That's funny all right,” said Pepper smiling right along with her once again.
“Well, Natalia, I don't think anyone else is coming today. Let's close up and get out of here, find Catalyst, that little trouble maker, and I’ll show you around this place,” said Pepper as Natalia put on a little more perfume, making Pepper wish she hadn't been standing so close to her when she did.
Having recovered from his wound left by the Blemmye spawn and its germ-infested bite, the old Elf slapped his new pet in a rage for being the same breed as the creature that bit him.
“Come on,” growled the Elf as he shoved the Blemmye face first into the rock that Catalyst and himself had lain on while they healed. Hobbling as fast as he could, the Elf followed the footprints left behind by his prey as his pet staggered along trying to follow him.
The Elf had not realized that when he smacked his pet’s face off the rock he lessened his grip on the Blemmye’s mind, as the jarring of its brain shook off some of the effects of the Elf’s mental images of submission.
After hobbling, limping and struggling for a few hours, the Elf reached the Mugwads’ treetop village and with the scent of Natalia’s perfume left on the outside of the door from when she brushed across it going into Pepper’s home, the Elf found the exact spot where they were hidden.
Unable to pry the door open, the Elf had no choice but to climb the outside of the tree, cringing with the pain from his butt, arm, palm, finger and eye wounds. He struggled to reach the top as he left behind a trail of blood that led from the door up wrapping halfway around the tree to the overlook. His pet was more than happy to lick the bloody trail clean, leaving no sign that they were even there, and with each lick of his master’s blood the Blemmye’s hunger for fresh flesh grew.
Spilling over the ledge, the Elf grabbed his pet and threw it across the floor of the overlook. With one more smack of its face into Pepper’s wall, the Blemmye’s brain was jarred again, further lessening the Elf’s grip.
“Now you just wait here and be quiet,” whispered the Elf, kicking the Blemmye in the face.
As the Elf entered Pepper’s home and quietly sneaked from one room to the next in search of his prey, his anger and hatred exploded when he found Natalia and Catalyst were not there. Running back to the overlook and peering over the edge to see if he could find Natalia and Catalyst somewhere in the crowds below, the Elf snapped and slapped the Blemmye again, knocking more and more sense and less control into it.
With his own frustrations blinding him to anything but revenge, the Elf hadn't noticed the Blemmye growing more and more aggressive towards him.
Following Pepper from one shop to the next and point of interest to point of interest, Natalia found it all very exciting. Catalyst had seen most of it before and found it all very humdrum. With the sun beating down so warmly and the gentle breezes blowing through the centre, Pepper found the break in her routine to be refreshing.
As the wind carried the scent of Natalia’s perfume through the air it caught the attention of the Elf and with a few sniffs, the Elf slipped down the stairs and outside, cunningly creeping from one hiding place to the next as he followed the perfume searching for his soon-to-be meals, otherwise known as Natalia and Catalyst.
Having slipped past many Mugwads as he made his way through the centre, the Elf’s stink soon gave him away and he was unaware that anyone had noticed him.
With a whisper here and a whisper there, a voice reached Pepper.
“Excuse me, excuse me, Pepper, a moment if you would?” asked a voice from out of nowhere.
Turning to look, Pepper saw a very peculiar looking fellow. She walked over to him and the stranger whispered into her ear. With a few whispers back, the peculiar little fellow went hurrying on his way.
“What's wrong, Pepper?” asked Natalia, seeing the worried look on her face although she tried to hide it.
“Can we help?” asked Catalyst, his sincerity equalled by his desire to get away from the boring afternoon.
“Oh no, children, it's just some supply problems, that's all,” replied Pepper keeping a watchful eye out for the Elf now she knew he was around somewhere.
“Come on, Natalia. Catalyst, let's keep moving – there's so much more to see and I want to show you the council’s meeting court,” said Pepper. “This will keep us moving,” she thought.
Natalia could only look at Catalyst knowing Pepper was hiding something other than supply problems, but what? And more importantly, why?
Everyone’s entitled to some privacy, Natalia,” whispered Catalyst into her ear, knowing what she was thinking.
Moving with the crowds all that afternoon, Pepper, Natalia and Catalyst found themselves moving back towards Pepper’s home. Knowing the Elf had to be around somewhere, Pepper hurried the two of them along not wanting to be in too thin a crowd just in case Bailey should try and strike. Having plenty of Mugwads around them made Pepper feel more in control.
Having had Natalia and Catalyst in his sights for some time now, Bailey continued to stalk them from the shadows. He was waiting for the perfect moment to grab them or at least one of them to satisfy his rage and hunger, but with many of the Mugwads aware of his presence and his reason for being there, a crowd big enough to fend him off made sure Natalia, Pepper and Catalyst were never alone and made it home safe and sound.
When the three of them were inside Pepper’s home, she closed and locked the door as the crowd slowly went their way, leaving Bailey unaware that they knew about his being there.
Waiting outside Pepper’s home, Bailey sat hidden behind a small bush until he was sure he would be alone with the three of them once he got inside Pepper’s home.
He had left the Blemmye on Pepper’s overlook and its stench hit Natalia and Catalyst right away.
“Rotten meat,” said Catalyst as he looked at Natalia.
I know...they've been here, but how?” replied Natalia trying to hold down her lunch. As Pepper was not able to hide what she knew any longer, she spoke up.
“The Elf you told me about – he's been following us all afternoon,” said Pepper, taking Natalia by the hand.
“Well his pet has to be around here somewhere,” said Catalyst, looking about Pepper’s home.
“His pet? What's his pet?” asked Pepper calmly.
“He has a Blemmye, I would know that stench anywhere,” replied Natalia.
“Oh dear, nobody mentioned a Blemmye earlier,” said Pepper.
“If you knew about this before why didn't you tell us?” asked Catalyst.
“I hoped the crowd that surrounded us all afternoon would have been enough to make the Elf give up and leave, and I felt it was better not to worry you both, after all you were quite safe,” replied Pepper.
With a deep breath and pulling together all her courage, Natalia spoke up.
“Well we've beaten him before and we'll beat him again,” she said, looking Pepper and Catalyst in the eye.
“I'm way ahead of you on that, Natalia. I've got a surprise for that Elf should he try and come in here! Now quickly, go upstairs the both of you. You'll be safe on the overlook, said Pepper.
Without hesitation Natalia took Catalyst by the hand and made her way up the stairs to the overlook as quickly as she could.
Believing that Natalia and Catalyst were now safe, Pepper began to light a few lanterns, but only just enough so that who ever came into her home would leave a shadow other than hers.
Reaching the top of the stairs, Natalia started to choke on the stench of the Blemmye. Without knowing it, they had walked right into its presence.
Jumping to its feet, the Blemmye charged them both, pushing Natalia out of its way. Catalyst was thrown into the table and chairs then slammed against the wall as Pepper heard Natalia’s screams for help.
Having heard the commotion from outside the Elf knew that his pet was on the attack and with a running jump and kick fuelled by rage the Elf broke through Pepper’s door and charged her. Hitting Pepper and knocking her to the floor, the Elf ran straight for his prey and punched the Blemmye to the floor because no one but him was going to devour either Natalia or Catalyst, not after all they had done to him.
Grabbing Natalia by the arm, Catalyst raced for the stairs, leaving the Elf and his pet behind.
Having hit the Blemmye just enough times now, the Elf’s control of it had weakened and with the Blemmye now free, it turned on the Elf and attacked its meal, biting the still open wound on the Elf’s arm from when it had bitten him on the killing field. The Blemmye ripped and tore at the flesh and the air around it as it fought with the Elf.
Screaming in awful pain as the Blemmye’s nails scraped across his arm bone, the Elf ripped, tore and gouged the eyes of his pet out. The Mugwads that Pepper had told to hide in her home, just in case, stood and watched while others surrounded Natalia, Catalyst and Pepper to protect them.
As the fight between master and slave continued, the blind Blemmye could only rip and tear away in the direction of the Elf’s noises as it desperately tried to feed its hunger while the Elf waited for just the right moment then grabbed the Blemmye by the arm and ripped it from its body. With one spin the Elf smacked the Blemmye right in the face backing it up to the edge of the overlook. He scooped the Blemmye off its feet, sending it tumbling one hundred and thirty feet to its death.
Looking over the overlook to see where it had landed, the Elf spat down upon it and turned to go after his prey. Meeting with a foot bigger than his head, the Elf himself was sent plummeting over the side to his own death, and hearing the oomph of the Elf landing right on top of his Blemmye, a rather large Mugwad shouted out, “He’s dead!” With a huge sigh of relief, Natalia grabbed Catalyst and kissed him right on the cheek.
Surprised by what she had just done, Natalia put a few steps between herself and Catalyst, hoping he understood why she had kissed him. As Catalyst just stood there gob-smacked, seeing what had just happened and how awkward things had become, Pepper grabbed and kissed both Natalia and Catalyst.
Lying on top of his dead pet, the Elf blinked and blinked again. With no one watching him, not that he cared, the vile, evil wretched old Elf staggered to his feet. Too stunned from the fall to be angry, he picked up the arm he had used to beat his pet to death with and stumbled off into the massive roots of the trees to find shelter while he healed, leaving behind him a trail of both Blemmye and Elf blood.
Everyone that could fit into Pepper’s home was already there and a small dinner party was held for fifty or so Mugwads, one Human and a Krusnik. Pepper made sure to thank everyone for all the help. As the evening wore on she could only dread the mess she would have to clean up the next day as she said good night to her guests.
“Well, children, that was an exciting day to say the least, wasn't it?” asked Pepper.
“It had it all. I never felt so alive!” chortled Natalia.
“I agree it was exciting,” said Catalyst calmly as he tried to make it sound like just another day for him.
Natalia and Pepper burst out laughing at his answer as they looked at one another knowing they were thinking the same thing – typical boy. Feeling uncomfortable and red faced once again, Catalyst slipped away from the women and quietly made his way to bed.
“Pepper, how did you do all of this?” asked Natalia.
The stranger I was talking with today told me that there was an evil little Elf creeping around, and since we're on good terms with the Elves, there was only one reason for him to be here – you and Catalyst. Since I already knew about your problems with him, I knew for sure he was here for you both, so I asked the fellow to gather a few of our friends and go to my home and hide in wait to help us when we got back. All we had to do in the meantime was stay away from here until they could gather, but how that Blemmye escaped their notice is beyond me. Does that answer your question?” replied Pepper.
“About that, yes. One fellow told me they knew it was up there but they also knew the Elf knew, so they thought it was best just to leave it there. They had no idea you would send us up there knowing they were in the house,” replied Natalia as she sat there looking as though she had more questions.
“What is it Natalia? If you have something to say just say it,” said Pepper.
“It's not that I have something to say. It's more like I have more questions about your world,” replied Natalia watching for a look of irritation on Pepper’s face.
“Ask away,” said Pepper, handing Natalia a cup of tea.
“Well remember when I was smiling about all those people in my world and how no one believes they see strange creatures? Well now I believe them and I believe that those creatures come from this world and there have to be portals all over the place,” said Natalia sipping her tea.
“Yes I remember but what's your question?” asked Pepper.
“The portal your ancestors came through is not the same one that I came through, is it?” asked Natalia.
“That's right,” replied Pepper.
“The portal in Svartalfheim, then, have you ever gone back through it?” asked Natalia not sure if she had the right portal.
“No, because I can't find it. I've looked many times for it but either it’s been moved or just lost in time. If someone did want to take it, it wouldn't have been hard to do. It was only a slab of rock just big enough to walk through. Look, I have some drawings of it. I copied all the books my ancestors wrote about it and their trip here and I copied it detail for detail,” said Pepper getting her books and sitting back down with Natalia.
“As you can see here it was one huge thin rock and its surface was nothing more than a shimmer. And here on this drawing you can see the hillside and cave where the rock was found on Earth when my ancestors took shelter from the plague. On this one they found themselves after coming into contact with the portal, but try as I might I've never found it,” replied Pepper.
“What if the Clique have?” asked Natalia.
“Would the Clique go to all the trouble to find the Kyopelivuori portal if they had their own? I think not,” replied Pepper.
“Why is this portal made of rock when the one I came through is all diamonds?” asked Natalia.
“Diamonds are minerals, Natalia, and I suspect that this one is black diamonds, so neither is rock,” replied Pepper.
“Anyway, I've had enough for one day and I'm off to bed,” said Pepper.
“Me too,” replied Natalia, not wanting to argue with Pepper about calling her portal a rock rather than a diamond. Pepper’s home grew silent.
Leaning back against a tree far from where he had landed after being kicked off the overlook, the Elf sat smacking the arm of the Blemmye on his forehead in frustration.
“They’re going to die, they’re going to die, they’re going to die,” repeated the Elf time and time again as he remembered the Clique’s warning – kill them or be killed – and with those words screaming in his mind, his hunger for fresh flesh grew ever stronger as did his thirst for vengeance. With his mind spinning, the Elf drifted off to sleep.
After a good night’s sleep, the sun lighting up Pepper’s overlook and the air filled with the sound of pots and pans rattling in the kitchen, Natalia and Catalyst woke to the smell of bacon, eggs and toast. It reminded Natalia of home as she hurried down the stairs only to see Pepper’s back with her finger pointing to the overlook where she saw Catalyst. He was shoving food into his mouth as though there was no tomorrow. When Pepper joined them she brought the sound of silence with her, as they could feel she had something to say.
“Well, children, as much fun as it has been having you here, I'm afraid our time together must come to an end,” said Pepper, knowing they needed to be on their way. She hoped that kicking them out would make it easier for them to leave and continue their journey.
“I agree, we really do need to be moving on – we've stayed too long,” said Catalyst. Natalia looked at him as though she was sorry they had worn out their welcome.
“Yes, but you did need the rest and maybe when you’re back this way you won't be such a stranger and you’ll say hello,” said Pepper.
After breakfast and a quick freshening up Natalia packed her blanket into the fitsall and handed it to Catalyst while she said her goodbyes to Pepper, thanking her for all she had done. They left by the same door they had come through.
Knowing that the Elf had fallen on the other side of Pepper’s home, Natalia needed to see him lying there, so with Catalyst in tow, Natalia walked around the tree to the spot where the Elf should have fallen only to find the Blemmye and not the Elf.
“What? Where the...? The Elf, Catalyst, he's gone,” said Natalia as she turned away from the rotting corpse of the Blemmye.
Spinning around to look behind him and straining hard to listen for any sound, Catalyst was just as shocked as Natalia to see no Elf corpse.
“Look, Catalyst,” said Natalia, pointing to what was left of the blood trail after the morning’s dew had washed most of it away.
“That's not as good as him being dead, but it's still good. That means he went off in the opposite way,” said Catalyst.
“Since he's been bitten by a Blemmye, he'll need the cure and that will give us even more time to get as far from here as we can,” said Natalia smiling a cracked smile.
“No, it won't. He was bitten by an adult Blemmye. Remember it's only the infant spawn that carry the infection. All he needs now is time to heal from his fall. I know they don't heal as fast as I do but the Elves heal fast enough. It looks as though he’s got meat,” said Catalyst pointing to the empty arm socket of the Blemmye corpse.
“Come on, Natalia, we need to put as much distance between us and that Elf as we can,” continued Catalyst.
“Let's just hope after that fall he's too sore to come after us,” said Natalia, practically pushing Catalyst along from behind.
Hurrying along for a few hours and without a word, Natalia just stopped and sat down, too tired to call out to Catalyst. All she could do was watch as he moved further and further away.
As Natalia sat and rested she wondered how anything could have survived that fall. She also wondered whether getting their crystals back was really worth it. After all, if she simply went back through the portal then the King would have to send somebody else to get them and she could be at home safe and sound, and the people of this world could simply worry about their own problems. With the weight of this worry bearing down upon her ten-year-old mind, Natalia could only wipe away the tears that filled her eyes as she started after Catalyst.
“Feeling better?” asked Catalyst as soon as Natalia was on her feet.
“I thought you went ahead without me,” said Natalia, surprised to see him sitting there.
“I did and when I realized you were no longer behind me I turned and came back. When I saw you sitting there I just waited for you,” replied Catalyst.
“You know, Catalyst, keeping secrets from each other, like Pepper did with us is never a good thing. In this world it's just too dangerous, so let's never keep secrets from each other ever again,” said Natalia in a tone that sounded as though if she didn't get what she wanted she would just turn and leave.
Having kept secrets as well as lying to her several times already and knowing he might have to protect her again, Catalyst agreed in spite of it all.
“Now for the really bad news, Natalia,” said Catalyst.
“What now?” asked Natalia hanging her head as she was sure whatever it was, it was only going to make matters worse.
“Another swamp, I'm afraid,” replied Catalyst pointing off into the distance.
She laughed with relief and wiped away another tear. Natalia looked at Catalyst smiling a smile that might have said thank you.
“That's not so bad,” said Natalia as she took Catalyst by the hand and started walking.
At the edge of the swamp Natalia took the fitsall from Catalyst and started emptying it.
“What are you doing?” asked Catalyst.
“There's no way I'm walking through another swamp without my boots on,” replied Natalia as she looked at Catalyst with a try-and-sto-me look on her face.
Realizing he had no choice, Catalyst waited for Natalia to do as she wished.
“Okay, before we go any further let me get the Cockatrice jerky from the bag,” said Catalyst as he dug through what Natalia had just put away. He made a mess of it all and Natalia glared at him.
He handed Natalia a piece of jerky. She hadn't realized how hungry she was until she started chewing and chewing and with all the chewing she was doing, silence filled the air. Finding it refreshing, Catalyst couldn't help but think, “Ah, no grief!”