Chapter 8: THE HERMITS
Standing at the edge of the swamp, Catalyst took the first step, soaking his foot up to the ankle and then the next one. Smiling at his discomfort, Natalia took her first step only to have the rim of her boot sink lower than the water line, filling it full.
Seeing this Catalyst tried to hide his smile but it was too late, Natalia had already seen it. She gave him a small but firm push and losing his footing, Catalyst found himself sitting chest deep in the swamp.
“Now we can both laugh,” said Natalia as she walked away, leaving Catalyst sitting there.
“I'm sorry,” said Catalyst, catching up to Natalia. It was one thing for a boy to be laughed at and another thing for a girl. Natalia’s pride would not let her accept his apology.
“Remember what I told you before about being rude to Russian girls, Catalyst? We won't and don't accept that from any boy,” said Natalia, letting him know she was not impressed with his behaviour.
The argument between them grew, so that neither of them noticed they were being watched by a small girl who looked as though she had lived her whole life in the swamp. She had ragged clothes, messy hair and a dirty face. She followed along as they argued.
The little girl watched Natalia with admiration, wanting more and more to be like her as she saw how Natalia was dressed and just how brave she was and the way she handled Catalyst, and she had a smile just like a woman, thought the little girl.
She ran ahead of them without being noticed. Having lived her whole life in one swamp or another, the little girl was an expert tracker and trapper and knew how to lure any type of creature to where she wanted.
With the right distance between her, Natalia and Catalyst, the little girl gave a crack of a twig and a panicked chirp of a bird.
“Shh,” whispered Catalyst.
Natalia’s eyes opened wide and her palms started to sweat. She stood there as thoughts of the Elf ran through her mind.
“Well, what is it?” whispered Natalia.
“I don't know. I thought I heard something. It's probably nothing, but to be safe, let's walk this way for a while,” replied Catalyst as he changed direction to avoid any more surprises.
“Okay,” agreed Natalia and followed Catalyst without a word.
Catalyst smiled as he walked side by side with Natalia. She felt a weirdness around her and had to ask: “Now what are you smiling at, Catalyst?”
“Well you were happy enough to argue with me over nothing just a minute ago, and all it took to stop you was your needing me to protect you,” replied Catalyst.
That was more than Natalia could take!
Grabbing Catalyst by the shirt, Natalia dragged him down into the swamp. With a smack here and a smack there, she pushed him under the water more than once. Natalia fought with Catalyst for more than ten minutes. Being smarter than most people gave him credit for, Catalyst lost.
Natalia stood up and looked at Catalyst as she backed away. Not watching where she was stepping, Natalia’s feet slipped out from under her and she landed on her back.
Sitting up covered in swamp weeds, Natalia and Catalyst could only laugh at themselves. Pulling Natalia to her feet, Catalyst knew she felt better than she had in days.
“You know, Catalyst, I don' t care what people say about you, you’re okay in my books,” said Natalia getting in one last shot at him.
With a few more sounds here and there floating through the air, Natalia and Catalyst were still being guided by the little girl who had just loved seeing Natalia win over a boy. Unaware of what was really happening, they moved along in the direction that felt safest.
As Catalyst looked ahead of them he thought he could make out the outline of a shack, as it was so cleverly camouflaged.
“Is it just me or do you that shack over there as well, Natalia?” asked Catalyst pointing at it.
“Shack? No,” replied Natalia as she scanned the swamp as best she could.
“Look, there's someone sitting on the porch,” said Catalyst as he strained his red eyes to make out the figure.
“I don't see anything but bush and trees,” replied Natalia as Catalyst now had them walking towards it.
“Sure, right there,” said Catalyst standing behind Natalia and pointing over her shoulder to its outline.
“Wow! Talk about invisible. And look – there really is someone sitting on the porch,” said Natalia.
“Hello,” she called out and waved before Catalyst could stop her.
“Natalia, what are you doing?” asked Catalyst, now being pulled towards the shack.
“Hello,” replied the old man as soon as Natalia and Catalyst were close enough to speak and not yell.
“You haven't seen a little girl around here anywhere, have you?” asked the old man as he looked around.
“No, no,” replied Natalia and Catalyst, taking a quick look about.
Stepping out from around the corner of the shack and looking back at the old man with a question on her face stood the little girl.
“Petal, I take it this was your doing?” asked the old man looking at her with wonder in his eyes then dropping his head into his hands.
“Why, Petal? Why?” mumbled the old man.
“I just wanted to meet them,” replied the little girl as she looked at Natalia.
“I know you want friends Petal, but you know we don't talk to the outsiders and you know why we don't. Now look at all the trouble you've caused,” said the old man, clearly sorry for his daughter’s lack.
“Petal, what am I supposed to do now? You know we can't let them leave, don't you?” asked the old man with a look of remorse.
Hanging her head, Natalia and Catalyst could hear her sigh at what the old man said.
Looking at Natalia, Catalyst took her by the hand and started backing away from the old man and little girl, only to feel the cold round end of a musket pressing against the back of his head. It stopped Catalyst right in his tracks as the cocking of its hammer rang loud and clear.
Going into his shack, the old man returned with two sets of shackles and fitted Natalia and Catalyst with a set each.
“You can put down the musket now, boy,” said the old man to his son.
“Look, children, it's nothing personal, but I simply can't let either of you go. The threat of Ananias, Elves or even the Basajaunak finding us is too great, not to mention the people of Kyopelivuori and any others that might call this world home,” said the old man shaking his head at whatever it was that he was talking about.
Confused by what was going on, Natalia spoke up.
“First of all, what's going on here? Let's start with that!” demanded Natalia, hoping she could gather enough information and talk them into letting Catalyst and her go.
“Simplest explanation – my little girl is lonely and wanted some friends,” said the old man sitting back down and wondering what he would do with them now.
With a look of “What are you talking about” screaming across her face, Natalia stood there, staring at the old man.
Seeing the need for a better answer, coupled with his sympathy for their plight, the old man started to fill in the gaps.
“You see my daughter is very skilled at tracking and trapping almost any creature this swamp holds. It seems that she lured you here, even though she knows she's not supposed to do that!” said the old man as he scolded his little girl one more time for bringing Natalia and Catalyst to their home.
“Lured us?” said Catalyst as he looked at Natalia.
Tired of the game with the old man and hoping to find out exactly what was going on, Natalia took a deep breath.
“Can you just start from the beginning and tell us why you won't let us go?” asked Natalia calmly and yet clearly annoyed.
“You’re not from around here are you?” asked the old man, taking a better look at Natalia and the clothes she was wearing.
“I'm from Earth,” replied Natalia.
“Well in a manner of speaking so are we. We're Human anyway and since you’re going to be with us for quite some time you may as well know why. Maybe it'll make the adjustment easier for all of us,” said the old man.
“My father and mother came to this world a long time ago with about fifty other settlers, hoping to build a new life for themselves. From what I remember growing up here, everything went fine for a long time. My parents and the others built a quiet and decent life for all of us. Then one day a few of the men went for supplies and only one returned. He brought news that a war had broken out between Humanity’s greed and the people of this world. By the time we found out Humans were a wanted species, innocent or not it didn't matter, everyone agreed that leaving their life here wasn't going to happen but no longer could we have anything to do with the world that surrounded us. So living solely off the land and meeting a few times a year to trade what we had, we've managed to keep our life and our homes. So you can see the danger in letting you go. Somehow, some way, someone would find out and then come hunting us,” said the old man as best he could, hoping his seclusion hadn't made it too hard for them to understand his words.
“Well, I’m sorry to tell you but we've been sent by the King of Kyopelivuori to retrieve the locking crystals and diamond ring for the portal, which by the way is now liquid. If we don't show up he'll surely send out his guards to search for us and if not us, then the crystals themselves. Since I can promise you he does not trust Humans, he'll turn this place upside down looking for me, believing I betrayed him,” said Natalia. She was pointing out the fact that she was Human and was there, however unintentional it was, by the King’s orders.
“Ever heard of the Krusnik?” asked Catalyst, as though everyone knew.
“No, can't say I have,” replied the old man, waving his hand through the air to remind Catalyst of their seclusion.
“Well you can trust me on this, she's my mother and there isn't anyone strong enough to stand in her way. She will cross through this land turning everything upside down looking for us. Your desire to remain unnoticed will mean absolutely nothing to her,” said Catalyst, hoping the old man would get it.
“Someone stole the crystals?” asked the old man.
“Yes, and what's worse is the King believes the one that did it is Human. That's why he sent me to clean up the mess of my fellow Humans,” replied Natalia firmly.
“Well then count yourselves lucky, because if there's war between the beings of this world and Humankind, the two of you couldn't be safer than with us. We've been hiding in this wilderness for more than two hundred years and never, not even once, have we been found or even seen. At least until today,” said the old man, instantly relieving his guilt as he went from captor to saviour in his own mind.
The Elf had had enough time to heal his sore, sore bones from his fall from Pepper’s overlook. Looking for a way to get back into Pepper’s home, he was lucky enough to find the children’s fresh tracks leading away from the treetop village. Once again, the Elf set off after his prey.
Reaching the edge of the swamp, where Natalia’s and Catalyst’s tracks disappeared into the water, the Elf stood smelling the air for a trace of Natalia’s ten-year-old little girl perfume, but the scent from her coat and neck had long since dissipated in the stench of the swamp.
Staring hard at the sooty bottom of the swamp, the Elf found no trace of a single footprint. Only after ten minutes did the Elf realize the oily residue that floated across the top of the water was from the perfume that clung to Natalia’s coat. Following that along, the Elf continued to track his prey.
“Since you’re both shackled and can't run off, you may as well help out. Now I know who it was that sent you and why it's time to rip down this shack and move on,” said the old man.
Giving the old man a dirty look, neither Natalia nor Catalyst would move from where they stood.
“I know it's hard now, but in a few years you won't even care about today or how you’re feeling right now. This place, this way of life...it changes you,” said the old ·man softly as he looked at Natalia, trying to offer some hope for tomorrow. Then he walked away to give them a few minutes’ peace.
“Look, Natalia, I don't like it any more than you do, but for now let's just go along with them. When we can, we'll escape,” said Catalyst whispering into her ear.
With a sour look on her face and saying not a single word, Natalia started to help rip down the shack with Catalyst.
With the heat of the sun beating down on her, along with the sweat from all her work, the smell of Natalia’s perfume was pungent.
“Phew!” sniffed Catalyst, now realizing exactly who and what was responsible for the smell.
“What are you sniffing at, Catalyst?” said Natalia, not liking how close he was when he sniffed the air around her.
“I think I know how the Elf's been able to track us so easily. Your perfume – it's been leaving its smell behind us everywhere we've gone,” said Catalyst, standing behind her sniffing at her coat.
“I don't smell anything,” said Natalia, sniffing the air around her.
“Trust me, with your sweat and body heat from the sun and all the work, I can smell it easily. Sorry, Natalia, I have to do this,” said Catalyst ripping the collar from Natalia’s coat.
“What are you doing, Catalyst? This is the only coat I own and now it's ruined,” cried Natalia.
“If I can smell your perfume from this, then so can others. And if we can leave a trail behind us, should anyone come looking for us they might be able to follow it,” whispered Catalyst.
“Even Bailey? Because you know we never found him and I'm sure he's still out there!” said Natalia, reminding Catalyst as rudely as she could without bringing attention to what he was doing.
“I hope not, but what else can we do? Sure we'll get away when we can but we need to try everything,” replied Catalyst, shoving the collar into his pocket and indicating the musket with a glance.
By the end of the day, completely exhausted, Natalia and Catalyst had helped dissassemble the shack and pack it aboard the most horrendous looking wagon-cart anyone had ever seen.
Seeing the look on Natalia’s face, as she couldn't take her eyes off the monstrosity, the old man walked over to her.
“It goes through water, over rough terrain and it's powered by my very own Horrabbull,” said the old man proudly as he pointed to the belt at the back of his waggart that would turn the wheels as the Horrabbull walked on it.
“You own one of those catastrophes?” asked Natalia in disbelief.
“Own one? I breed them,” replied the old man.
“You breed them? How on Earth could you?” asked Natalia.
“We're not on Earth, that's how. It's something in the water or grass, maybe the grains, I don't know for sure. All I know is the creatures of this world can mate successfully,” replied the old man.
Natalia had no idea of what to say. It was all too frustrating.
“So what do you think?” asked the old man, trying to make her feel included.
“Well that explains the Hybrids. And this looks like a hearse, a treadmill and a wagon were in a horrible wreck,” replied Natalia mockingly.
With the old man distracted by Natalia, Catalyst sat down on the back of the waggart, took the collar and shoved half of it into his shoe, leaving the other half to drag along the ground in hopes of leaving a very noticeable trail.
Soon enough the Horrabbull was on its belt and Natalia was leaning against Catalyst, chained to the waggart. Petal, the old man and his son drove them on through the swampy water and bog to their new patch of land.
“Do you hear the way the old man talks?” He hardly makes sense,” whispered Natalia.
“Seclusion, Natalia. It'll do that. He probably hasn't had a real conversation in months,” replied Catalyst as they both listened to the sound of wheels turning, lulling them off to sleep.
Rising to the morning sun and looking around him, Natalia was nowhere to be seen.
“Natalia, Natalia!” yelled Catalyst.
“Screaming won't do you any good!” snapped the old man jokingly as he walked out from the half-built shack with a bowl of food in his hands for Catalyst.
“Eat this, then we could use your help putting this shack back together,” said the old man as kindly as he could.
“Where's Natalia? Where's my bag?” demanded Catalyst.
“Natalia's off gathering roots with Petal, and your bag minus your rope dart and Atropos Styx is right over there,” replied the old man, nodding his head to where the bag sat.
“Look you can get as angry as you like, but this is your home now and that won't change. As I said yesterday, it's nothing personal – you’re just too much of a risk to let go. But I promise you'll be treated as well as one of my own children,” said the old man, leaving Catalyst to sit, eat and think.
Returning sometime later with her shackles still on, Natalia and Petal put their roots and greens on the table as Catalyst signalled to Natalia.
“Where have you been?” asked Catalyst as though she had cooperated more than she should have.
“Until we get away from here, we still need to eat, so I went to gather food with Petal. I have no idea where we are and Petal is no help, she doesn't know anything,” replied Natalia.
“Well that helps now, doesn't it?” stated Catalyst as he sat chained to the waggart.
“Catalyst, if you would calm down a bit he would let you off this waggon and maybe then you could take a look around and find out where we are. And help me find away for us to escape, because as long as you’re chained to this thing I am on my own,” said Natalia with all the common sense she could muster to remind him of where they were and what was going on.
With a deep breath and his anger in check, Catalyst sat back and relaxed, waiting for the old man to notice.
The glare of the sun and its reflection off the swamp water meant the Elf had to strain his one eye hard as he followed the oil from Natalia’s perfume to the very spot of her battle with Catalyst and then to where the hermit’s shack had stood the day before.
The scent of Natalia’s perfume was all over the ground and with footprints coming and going in every direction, leading nowhere, the Elf seethed with rage once again.
Walking around and around the patch of ground and scouring the water it was only after two full passes did the Elf realize that although barely visible in the floating scum left in their wake, there were wheel tracks leading away from the now barren hill. “Making friends I see,” thought the Elf, hoping.
Not being sure if Natalia and Catalyst had left with their new friends, the Elf had little choice but to follow the only tracks leading away from nothing.
Smiling with a grimy grin and a mouthful of rotting teeth, the Elf could only hope he was moving in the right direction because the oil from Natalia’s perfumed collar had simply dissipated in the wake of the waggart’s wheels. With the evening now setting in and the glare of the sun fading, the Elf’s eyesight improved ten times making it easy to follow the scattered tracks left from the waggart’s wheels.
Eventually, having gone as far as he could in the evening light, the Elf found dry ground, sat down and drained his boots. By mere chance he stopped grinding what few teeth he had just long enough to hear the crackling of a fire in the distance.
Going back into the water and moving as fast as he could, the Elf slowed his running hobble to a sneaking shuffle as he poked his head through the bushes that hid the hermit’s shack. He could smell Natalia’s perfume again and he moved towards his prey, smelling sweet success.
Catalyst had behaved himself all day since his talk with Natalia and he was now as calm as could be. The old man saw this and walked over to him.
“You know I think you've acted like an ass all day just to get out of helping to put this shack up,” said the old man as kindly as anyone could, trying to build a bridge while he unlocked the chain that bound Catalyst’s shackles to the waggart.
“Come on, we may as well get you something to eat,” said the old man, taking Catalyst by the arm and making sure he continued to behave himself.
After dinner, as Natalia helped Petal with the dishes and the old man’s son was off doing something or other, the old man called out to Catalyst.
“Here you go, boy. You can start chipping in around here. This is a lickspittle. Take it over to the Horrabbull and shove it in the ground in front of him,” said the old man, handing him a spear with what looked like a misdrilled flute on the end of it.
“What is the thing your father's giving to Catalyst, Petal?” asked Natalia.
“That's the Horrabbull’s lickspittle. It cleans its tongue as it licks the salted vitamins and minerals off it, replied Petal. She smiled casually and looked away, knowing exactly what was going to happen, leaving Natalia to watch uninterrupted.
Catalyst shoved the lickspittle into the ground and as they watched the Horrabbull licking away at it, Catalyst could see that having him bring it over was more a punishment than a help, for every lick that the Horrabbull took, its thick, sticky, gross slobber slid through the downward drilled holes and oozed out the other side like sap being funnelled from a tree and it hit the ground in one growing mess.
Turning away so she wouldn't puke, Natalia watched the old man laugh at Catalyst. He walked into his shack and opened up his chest to get his pipe. There, sitting on top, was their rope dart and Atropos Styx.
When she brought Catalyst a cup of water, Natalia whispered she had found their stuff.
Making his way closer to his prey, peeking out from behind the bushes and trees, slipping from one boulder to the next that helped to hide the hermits as well as him, the Elf’s desire for his prey to suffer his vengeance grew as he waited for the right moment to strike.
The night had set in and the old man and his family were fast asleep. Natalia and Catalyst were chained to separate sides of the waggart and, seeing this, the Elf found it easy to sneak up on them. He headed for Natalia first and in spite of losing yet another nail, the only sound the Elf made was the simple click of opening the lock that kept Natalia bound.
He carried Natalia back the way he had come but stepped too hard. A single drop of the swamp water splashed into Natalia’s eye, waking her. The foulness of his breath so close to her face that she could taste it in the air meant Natalia knew she was in the arms of the Elf.
Full of fear, Natalia decided it was best not to move. After a few minutes of pretending to be asleep the Elf gently set her down, leaving her there as he returned for his main course – Catalyst.
She waited for an extra minute after the footsteps of the Elf had faded and then popped open one eye. She took a quick look around and quietly crept along behind the Elf until she was back near the shack.
Slipping to one side of the path to avoid being seen by the Elf, Natalia made her way into the shack without making a sound and gently opened the old man’s chest. She took back their property and slipped back outside without waking the old man or Petal.
The Elf removed the shackles that kept Catalyst chained to the waggart. He made no more noise than he did when he freed Natalia even though it was the second fingernail he lost that night.
Picking up Catalyst and watching the shack as he backed away, the Elf felt the cold round barrel of a musket being pressed against the back of his head as he heard the hammer being cocked.
“That'll be far enough,” came a voice from behind the Elf. With a shove of the musket to the back of his head, the Elf dropped Catalyst, who was now wide-awake.
“Father, Father!” called out the boy.
Hearing a whispered, “Over here” from Natalia, Catalyst moved away from the Elf and the old man’s son, and slipped into the bushes where Natalia was hiding. Slowly and quietly they backed further and further away.
The old man came charging out of the shack, not noticing that Natalia and Catalyst were no longer chained to the waggart. Squinting and rubbing his eyes, the old man took the musket from his son.
“Well, well, well, what do we have here? Looks like we got us some slave labour now, son,” said the old man in a sarcastic tone of voice as he shoved the musket into the Elf’s chest.
Without anyone noticing, Natalia and Catalyst were well on their way as they moved as fast as they could through the swamp, leaving the Elf behind with his new family.
“Which way, Catalyst?” asked Natalia as they ran.
“I don't know, just keep moving, I don't want that crazy Petal catching up to us, so no stopping,” replied Catalyst now dragging Natalia behind him.
“Catalyst, I...need...to...stop. I can't...run...any...any more,” gasped Natalia as she fell to her knees, exhausted from running for over an hour.
“Oh no you don’t! You keep running!” said Catalyst as he took Natalia by the arm, threw her up onto his back and continued trudging through the swamp. The sun was rising. They now had hours between them and their would-be capturers. Natalia kept watch for crazy Petal or the Elf when Catalyst had a rest.
Bound and shackled to Catalyst’s spot on the waggart, the Elf sat muttering to himself.
“Dirty rotten little prey. I help them escape and they leave me here alone and chained,” laughed the Elf out loud with tears of anger, hatred and humiliation running down his withered face.
Biting and tearing the flesh around his shackles, the Elf soaked the metal with his blood and pulled, turned and twisted his wrists and hands until he slipped free. He waited for one of his capturers to approach and as curious as she was friendless, Petal couldn't help herself any longer and moved in for a closer look at the Elf.
“Why are you so awful?” asked Petal as she looked into the eye of the Elf.
With a forced tear streaming down his face, the Elf tried to wipe it with his shoulder as he looked at Petal. Seeing the Elf couldn't get the tear himself and feeling sorry for him, Petal reached for his cheek to wipe away the tear. With one swipe of his hand the Elf was now holding Petal in his arms.
“Help!” screamed Petal as she struggled to free herself.
Hearing her muffled scream, the old man grabbed his musket and ran toward his daughter. His son ran around the corner of their shack.
“Put her down now!” demanded the old man as he stood pointing his musket right at the Elf’s face.
“Why should I? Do you know how long it's been since I had a fresh kill?” replied the Elf, hissing and grinning.
“Put her down now!” demanded the old man.
“What's in it for me if I do?” laughed the Elf, still holding Petal tightly.
“A ten-second headstart,” said Petal’s brother as he shoved his musket into the back of the Elf’s head.
Biting his checks in humiliation and forcing the blood down his chin, the Elf lowered Petal to the ground and reluctantly let go. He immediately hobbled off as fast as he could.
“You said ten seconds,” yelled the Elf as he headed for the cover of the bushes.
“I lied!” shouted the boy as he fired straight into the Elf’s back, hitting his legs, butt and back. “See, Father, I told you I needed more than pebbles and rock salt for this thing. Now he's getting away,” laughed the boy as Petal ran and jumped into his arms.
As the Elf hobbled through the swamp away from the old man and his son, following the trail left by Natalia and Catalyst, he could feel the sting of the salt as it was moistened and remoistened by the dirty swamp water and the burning from the salt as it trickled into the wounds made by the pebbles.
“Where are you, you vile little brats?” screamed the Elf.
The echo of the Elf’s cry faded as it crossed the swamp so that it was barely noticeable when the hermits heard it.
“We'll never catch him now. Let's just get this shack packed and be on our way,” said the old man with a glance and shrug at Petal hoping she would now understand the danger.
Still following Natalia and Catalyst, the Elf didn’t realize what he was doing and pulled and ripped the rock salt and pebbles from his body, leaving his wounds open to infection from the gross swamp water.
Having rested long enough and not knowing who would be coming after them – the Elf or the hermits or both – Catalyst felt an overwhelming urge to keep moving even if that meant carrying Natalia. But having rested enough herself, Natalia found it easy to keep up to Catalyst as they hurried further and further away from their would-be capturers.
Eventually finding that woods had started to overtake the swamp, Natalia and Catalyst found it hard to move through the massive roots growing out of the ground from trees that grew so huge. They hopped and jumped from one root to the next. Walking when they could, crawling when they had to, their run was slowed to no more than a crawl.
The Elf was catching up to them fast, even with his salt and pebble musket shot wounds now clearly infected and the infection having spread to his empty eye socket, nail-less fingers, punctured palm, the Blemmye bite on his arm and his axe-smacked butt. The Elf could still move through the swamp faster than Catalyst could while travelling with Natalia.
As the day wore on, Catalyst could feel they weren't going to be alone much longer. He was worried and looked around for what to do next. He could see they had few options – they could try and hide but he felt sure they would be found out with the scent of Natalia’s perfume. They could throw away Natalia’s coat but what to do with her – after all she was covered in it. They could stand and fight, but exhausted from running most of the night and fighting their way through the dense roots all day, it just wasn't an option.
Then Catalyst heard the patter of little feet and a soft gentle call and there in front of Natalia’s face stood the answer Catalyst had been looking for – a Tree Marm. The Marm crawled into Catalyst’s hand without hesitation, and taking the collar tucked inside his shoe and a lace from Natalia’s, Catalyst tied the collar to the Marm and gently placed it at their feet.
“I really hate to do this Natalia; these things are so gentle.” Then Catalyst screamed at the Marm, making it run through the roots for its life as Natalia’s collar scraped everything the Tree Marm ran across.
Catalyst looked at Natalia and, holding his finger up to his lips, he moved a little deeper into the roots. Natalia followed as quietly as she could until Catalyst found a hollow to hide in.
“Sh, I can feel that Elf. I know he's near,” said Catalyst, paying attention to his gut as he pulled Natalia into the shadow.
Standing there in silence it wasn't long before they could hear the Elf as he recklessly approached the spot where they had set loose the Marm. The stench of the swamp water and Catalyst’s foot mixed with Natalia’s perfume wafted into the air. The Elf sniffed and sniffed until he was satisfied which way Natalia and Catalyst had fled and set off after the Marm.
“That was perfect, Catalyst,” sighed Natalia looking at him in amazement.
“The best part is, we're behind him now so we don't have to move so fast. We're not even going in the direction I sent the Marm in,” replied Catalyst with a smile as he took Natalia by the hand.
“Okay, so we're just going to keep walking until we get out of this root forest?” asked Natalia. She waited for Catalyst to agree.
“Well?” demanded Natalia, playfully hitting Catalyst in the arm.
“I agree, I agree,” replied Catalyst as they were already walking towards the outer edge of the forest, their exit, anyway.
Time passed as Natalia and Catalyst continued to hop, jump, walk and crawl their way over, through, under and around the roots that surrounded them.
“I need to eat,” said Catalyst.
“I want something hot,” insisted Natalia as she reached for firewood that lay all around them.
“Me too,” said Catalyst and cleared a small spot for a fire. Digging through the fitsall and coming up with only dried meats and fruits, Natalia just looked at Catalyst and shook her head.
“We don't have anything in here we can cook,” said Natalia, handing him a piece of dried fruit.
“Natalia, look around you – we're in the middle of a forest. What would you want that dried up old stuff for when we have all the fresh meat we could eat all around us?” asked Catalyst as he pulled out his rope dart.
“I won't be long. Just wait right here,” he said as he headed off to find something to roast over a fire.
“Don't be too long, Catalyst,” pleaded Natalia, afraid of being alone after all the freaks she had been surrounded by lately.
Sitting and tending the fire she had built, Natalia waited for Catalyst to return. Suddenly a twig snapped behind her and the dead body of a Marm landed between her feet. Natalia almost jumped out of her skin.
“It’s always something with you, isn’t it?” She thought it was Catalyst playing games with her and turned to smack him.
“Arrrggg!” screamed Natalia as she stood face to withered, infected face with the Elf. She saw right into his empty eye socket that was now cracked and oozing pus. She backed away slowly with the Elf matching her step for step. As he held his hands out, Natalia could see small drops of pus dripping from his two missing nails and one finger tip. She knew she had nowhere to run.
“Thought you could outsmart me did you, little girl? Thought you were so funny getting me to chase that little rodent of yours, didn't you, little girl? Well there's your pet’s dead body, like so many of mine, little girl. Go ahead pick it up, you’re going to eat it out of your hand or off the ground, it won't matter to me!” seethed the Elf as his rage vibrated through the air.
“What do you want from us, Bailey?” asked Natalia, trying to stand her ground.
“Ah, so you know my name. Do you also know that the Clique are well aware of everything you’re doing, thanks to their spy,” gloated the old Elf as he moved closer.
Not knowing what to say, Natalia stood there searching for a face in her memory that she had seen in more than one place.
“That's right, little girl, they know you and that pathetic Krusnik are trying to get back the crystals they stole,” continued the Elf, taking one step closer to Natalia.
“So there really is a Clique. I thought for sure you were lying and it was just a bunch of inept apes out here running amok. That pathetic Krusnik and I have beaten you more than once!” said Natalia mockingly, hoping to find out more about this spy and trying to buy time until Catalyst returned.
“You won't be making fun of them or me much longer, little girl. They know you know about their fortress in Ghost Mountain and they know the two of you are trying to get there,” said the Elf with a grim smile, knowing full well when he set out after them all the Clique knew was that two kids were looking for the crystals.
“If that's true, then why did they send you? Why have someone so incompetent to do their work?” asked Natalia as she backed away, moving in circles around her fire.
“Oh at first you were the cost of my freedom from the Gallows, then when I saw you, you became a meal that I just could not say no to. Now you’re an act of pure vengeance,” replied the Elf as he wiped the drool from his chin at the thought of boiling her alive.
As the Elf tauntingly kept pace with Natalia, Catalyst quietly watched from a branch above them. He waited with rope dart in hand and when Natalia was in the right position, Catalyst threw the dart past her and into the right foot of the Elf. He stopped as tears ran down his face.
“Well at least now you have your rope dart back!” yelled Catalyst mocking the Elf. He dropped off the branch, ripping half of the Elf’s right foot off.
“Run, Natalia!” yelled Catalyst as he slammed the dart on the ground to free it of the Elf. Natalia took Catalyst by the arm as she ran past him, dragging him up and over and through the roots. He was happy to follow her for a while.
As the sound of the Elf’s wailing faded, Natalia slowed her run to a fast walk.
“So, Catalyst, did you find us any meat?” asked Natalia.
“No, I heard the Elf coming and had to turn back. I waited for him to find you,” replied Catalyst calmly.
“What? Why would you do that? You used me as bait! Why?” said Natalia, shocked.
“Look, I knew he was coming. I also knew we needed to stop him once and for all. I knew if he saw you sitting there all alone he would feel more in control and would let down his guard. Believe me, he waited for a long time before he was even ready to try and grab you. I know because I waited a long time as I watched him. I never left you alone, Natalia, I just needed a clear shot at him,” explained Catalyst without apology.
“Bait,” said Natalia understanding his reasoning while she rolled her eyes. She said nothing more because she knew she might have done just the same, but it didn't make her feel any better.
“S,” whispered Catalyst as he took his rope dart in hand.
“What now?” thought Natalia as she and Catalyst crouched behind a tree.
Peeking around the tree with Natalia looking over his shoulder, Catalyst now had their dinner in his sights and that alone made her feel better.
“Mmmm, fresh meat,” whispered Natalia.
There was not enough room to wind up the rope dart, so Catalyst removed the dart from the rope, stood up and stepped out from behind the tree. He let the dart fly and with a single throw he had their meal.
“Now we have dinner,” said Catalyst to a now-smiling Natalia as he went to bring back the kill.
“What do call this thing, Catalyst?” asked Natalia, knowing full well it was a goat.
“It's a zajeci,” replied Catalyst.
Natalia thought about all the times she had been on school trips to farms and how she never minded spending her thirty-rouble allowance on goat pellets so she could feed them. Now one of them could return the favour.
“I don't know what you’re smiling at, Natalia. These things are very dangerous creatures,” said Catalyst, trying to sound all manly.
“I'm smiling at their name,” replied Natalia, not wanting to hurt his feelings.
Having passed out from the pain and loss of blood, the Elf started coming around. He had almost half a foot missing and was still bleeding. The Elf had enough sense to know he needed to stop the flow of blood or die. He looked around for anything to wrap the wound with but found nothing. Seeing the red hot embers still burning from Natalia’s fire, the Elf hobbled over to the fire and with a deep breath shoved his foot straight into the middle of the coals.
With the smell of burning flesh rising through the air and the searing pain of cauterizing his wound, the Elf let out a harrowing cry as he fell to the ground. He tore off a piece of his pant leg to wrap his foot in and then cried out twice as loudly because he now realized he could have wrapped his foot with that instead of cauterizing it. Ashamed of his own stupidity the Elf hung his head, grinding his teeth while hissing and spitting as he cursed the names of Natalia and Catalyst.
“I swear by all I own, by all I am, by my life at my own hands, those children will die by this day's end.”
Standing up on one foot, stumbling from one tree to the next, the Elf followed the footprints of Catalyst and the scent of Natalia’s perfume with only the thoughts of vengeance screaming in his mind.
“You know, Natalia, we're not far from the edge of this forest now. These zajeci only come in here for shelter from the heat or to hide from danger,” said Catalyst as he and Natalia sat waiting for their dinner to finish roasting.
“Danger? Like us?” asked Natalia as her tummy rumbled.
“Anyway, if this thing is here, then we're not far from getting out of this place – that is my point,” said Catalyst.
“We'll keep moving after we've eaten,” replied Natalia as she ripped two pieces of the zajeci off for her and Catalyst.
After eating all they could, Natalia threw some dirt on what was left of their fire and led the way. Catalyst followed behind and moving four times faster than the Elf could hobble, Natalia eventually found a nice quiet place for them to sleep.
With the Elf raging behind them and not willing to wait until the morning to hunt them down, he stumbled on through the night until he came upon their fire pit and leftover zajeci.
Eating what he could from the prey of his prey, the Elf ate his fill. Every bite tasted like a punch in the mouth. As he ate their discarded scraps he could only continue to seethe and rage like a child that was only ever given hand-me-downs. Finally exhausted by his plight, the Elf fell asleep with a mouthful of zajeci seeping from his lips.
When the sun rose the next morning, Catalyst woke feeling refreshed and ready for the day ahead. As she lay there, Catalyst stood looking and giggling at her.
“Shut up, Catalyst, I'm awake,” said Natalia giggling with him.
“When you’re done resting from resting, perhaps you wouldn't mind helping me pack this place up so we can get moving. I for one am sick of this whole place, your highness,” joked Catalyst as Natalia lay right where she was.
“Should I lead the way again?” asked Natalia, handing Catalyst her blanket for the fitsall which was half of their small camp.
“Why not?” replied Catalyst, pointing in the direction they had been heading the night before. To Natalia’s surprise, she had led them just twenty feet short of the edge of the forest and in less than thirty seconds they were out.
Turning to laugh at Catalyst, Natalia stopped dead in her tracks. They had been spotted by a huge Basajaunak that was now running straight for them.
“Wait! Wait!” yelled the Basajaunak as he crossed the field in less than a minute.
“Have either of you seen a spotted zajeci around here?” asked the goat herder as he looked at Catalyst.
“No,” replied Natalia, swallowing a gulp, knowing full well that they had enjoyed it for dinner the night before.
“Really? Then why do you look so worried?” asked the Basajaunak as he looked at Natalia with great suspicion.
“Because you’re scaring me,” replied Natalia as she let a few fake tears flow from her eyes.
“Well, I'm sorry, I don't mean to do that,” replied the Basajaunak in a soft tone of voice, at least for him.
“You know now I come to think of it, I think I might have seen one in the woods last night,” said Catalyst pointing back in the direction they had come from.
“Thank you,” replied the Basajaunak as he sprinted off into the woods.
“Look there, Natalia – Ghost Mountain. Now let's get moving before he comes back,” said Catalyst dragging Natalia with him one more time.
As the Basajaunak followed the clear trail left by the children, he soon came upon a sleeping Elf with his zajeci oozing down his filthy chin.
“What have you done?” screamed the Basajaunak as he kicked Bailey awake.
“I swear it wasn't me. There are these two children that cause nothing but trouble everywhere they go. What are you talking about anyway, beast?” demanded the Elf, realizing he had no idea what was going on.
Angered by the Elf, the Basajaunak grabbed him off his feet and pointed to what was left of his zajeci.
“What did you do?” demanded the Basajaunak one more time.
“I swear it was them. I found it just like this,” pleaded the Elf with his eye opened so wide it looked as though it would pop right out of his head.
“A likely story – blame a couple of children! Well it's dead now, so you’re going to finish eating it,” said the Basajaunak as he started shoving one handful after another down the throat of the Elf. When every last bite was gone the Basajaunak threw the Elf hard against a tree and walked out of the woods. Coming to his senses, the Elf started after his prey once again.