The Bald Tattooist of Maskerville

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City of Eclair and The Moon Castle (Part I)

Prince Hanariel flew in the skies searching for the two mortals who had run away. It was easier to survey the land from above than to wander around in the forest. However, it is quite difficult to look through the thick canopy even with an elf’s heightened eyesight especially when one is looking for something as small as gnomes.

Hanariel’s klosus was mid-air when he suddenly jumped from the creature and dropped fluidly into a thin branch grabbing it with just enough force not to break it. He looked down at the forest floor and spotted a bunch of red pointy hats moving swiftly. He saw them chasing Marty, but his companion was nowhere to be seen. He whistled for the klosus to search for the girl, Catherine, while he ran after Marty and his pursuers. The horse Marty was riding on a few minutes ago was gone as well. He was now running on foot. The gnomes kept throwing rocks at him while he ran using a slingshot. It hit Marty on the head making him stagger and trip. The gnomes caught up to him, and one hit his head with a trowel.

Hanariel was rapidly plummeting towards the ground. He dropped with a loud thud behind the band of gnomes, startling them and Marty. The gnomes looked at him bewildered. He strode forwards and towered over the little beings.

“High Prince,” they all acknowledged and bowed. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit?”

“This man is no enemy. He had been invited to Valhalla and I’ve come to retrieve him,” Hanariel said. “What about the woman?”

Marty stood up and slowly walked beside Prince Hanariel. He looked at the creatures accusingly and said, “They took her. They took Catherine.”

He growled and finally finding his courage, stepped boldly in front of the fifty or so gnomes ready to fight. They lifted their gardening tools in return and poised to attack. But before he could land a solid kick on even one gnome, Hanariel had grabbed his arm and twisted it around while rotating, taking him off balance.

“Don’t be mistaken, child. Nobody hurts my subjects. Don’t think that you can do whatever you want here,” Prince Hanariel said.

The gnomes looked up at the Prince in awe and was touched by his protectiveness even towards mere gardeners and farmers like them. Their angry faces replaced by watery eyes which quite frankly, disturbed Hanariel. He knew gnomes can be very emotional.

“But they got Catherine!” he shouted angrily.

“I’ll make sure we get to her just in time,” Hanariel simply said. Then he whistled.

“Where are you taking me?!” Catherine shouted. “Let me go,” she said, struggling to untie the rope wrapped around her body.

Dunli and his company had ambushed, Marty and Catherine, while they ran in circles lost in the forest. They were able to separate the two and subdue their horses. Marty tried to draw the gnomes away from Catherine but there were a hundred of them that even if fifty left to ran after him, there’s still plenty left to seize her. The first scream came when she was frightened by a gnome that suddenly jumped on her head.

She tried to run away but the gnomes had deftly tied her legs. Soon enough, they were dragging her towards a cornfield. The gnomes had tied her body around a stick and hoisted it in the middle of the field much like a scarecrow. The second scream came when a flock of weird-looking black birds with drill-shaped beaks instantaneously zoomed towards her.

The gnomes have all but left her to her own devices. The birds pecked at her head. But something parted the thicket of birds attacking Catherine. It was Ink treading through the cornfield. He threw stones at the birds as he stomped his way to his friend.

“Catherine!” Ink shouted worriedly. He didn’t want anymore harm to come to his friend. She had already suffered enough injury the last time with the Brotherhood of Light Bearers.

Ink heard her scream one more time. He rapidly cleared the way to his friend by whacking the corn stalks with his blade. The birds were now flying above him. They had scattered and left Catherine, only to attack Ink instead. He tried to fight them off but their were too many of them. He defended himself by slicing off the birds but the more he killed, the more aggressive they become.

Rebecca and the guys arrived later to see the gruesome scene before them. The cornfield had a clearing to it made by Ink’s constant slashing. The birds are still flying above him, circling, waiting to pounce at their prey. They saw Catherine further, tied to a pole, violently shaking off the ropes. Her arms were stained with blood and her eyes red from tears. Rebecca ran to her rescue while Claus and Frank went to help Ink. Sebastian and Demelov looked at each other hesitating. But then Sebastian ran towards Rebecca while Demelov went to fend off the gnarly birds.

Rebecca pulled out the knife she had hidden underneath her tunic. She cut the ropes binding Catherine’s arms and feet, effectively freeing her from the pole.

She dropped knee first to the ground. Rebecca steadied Catherine and grabbed her by the shoulders. She glanced at the wound on her arm. She tried to stop the bleeding by putting pressure copying the same things Claus had done the previous times. She took her handkerchief and tied it around the wound. Catherine winced, her eyes searching for Ink.

They were still swarmed by the birds. Their movements faster than they were a few seconds ago that cutting them was almost impossible. She stood up and went towards them, Rebecca stopped her. But she shook her off and went anyway. She wobbled through the stalks of corn. Some of the birds flew towards her direction. Rebecca drove them away by swinging her bow around. Sebastian was beside her, closely guarding her side with his axe.

The birds are all over the corn fields like a plague of locusts. But instead of devouring the crops, they attacked the mortals, nitpicking at their flesh.

Prince Hanariel and Marty were right above them. The klosus flying over the plickerbirds at a higher altitude. It immediately dipped and plunged straight into the chaos. The birds parted at the sight of the klosus, and Marty ran towards Catherine as Prince Hanariel unmounted the winged-tiger.

The flock of birds flew past the others and went straight to attack Hanariel. He smiled wickedly. As the cacophony of plickerbirds neared, he flicked his left hand and said “Fore Vrent”. A strong gust of wind came accompanied by dark clouds blew away the plickerbirds. The mortals stood their ground. They grabbed unto their masks as the violent wind racked the place. Marty held unto Catherine tightly wrapping his arms around her tenderly. While Sebastian grabbed unto Rebecca to make sure she doesn’t get blown away. Her hair was all over the place. The corn stalks were displaced and flew high up into the sky together with the gust of wind.

By the time it died down, the plickerbirds were nowhere in sight. The cornfield was in disarray, and the dark clouds vanished. Light shone upon them once again.

They all stood up and looked around. They searched the skies for the weird looking birds but not even one was around. Ink ran towards Catherine. He bent his knees and delicately brushed her arms seeing the bandage Rebecca had placed around her wound.

“Why is it always you that gets attacked the most? Huh? Why couldn’t it be me?” Ink said.

“Believe me, I’ve been asking that to myself as well,” she grinned. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. It isn’t that bad,” she comforted.

Alerted by the dark clouds and the strong gust of wind, the group of Dunli ran back to their cornfield to see what had happened. Upon seeing the complete mess his field had turned into, he stomped all the way to the group failing to see Prince Hanariel.

“What have you done?! You stupid men!” he shouted angrily, pointing the pitchfork at them threateningly. His followers flanking both his sides.

“You! This is your fault! You were the one who dragged Catherine away and tied her to that pole for those birds to feast on,” Marty growled taking deliberate steps towards him.

In a flash, Prince Hanariel was there to shield the little men once again. He stood unwaveringly between Marty and Dunli.

“I already warned you, child. I do not like having to repeat myself.”

Dunli, being only two feet in size, peaked behind the long cloak of Prince Hanariel. He looked up to him like a little kid with dazzling eyes seeing the Prince for the first time.

“Are my eyes deceiving me? Or are you really High Prince Hanariel?” he asked excitedly.

“It is I,” the Prince replied.

Dunli bit his lower lip and grabbed the hem of his cloak before bowing and kissing his snake boots.

“It is a mighty honor to gaze upon you, High Prince,” he recited. The gnomes behind him followed suit. “I can’t believe I’m finally seeing you with my own two eyes,” he looked so overwhelmed.

“Do rise, Dunli, caretaker of the highland corns,” Prince Hanariel said. “I do understand that it was your doing taking this young maiden here and feeding her to the plickerbirds.”

Dunli scractched his beard and grinned revealing a missing front tooth. “Aye, it is indeed my idea sire. Plickerbirds have been eating away at the corns and you know how long it takes for them to mature here in the highlands. Hate those damn beasts. Drilled holes through my entire plot of corns last week. I heard rumors from the south, news carried by our bird friends that people there feed them masked men. They say they are a poison to plickerbirds, poison to life at that. Thought I should try it out,” Dunli replied still grinning not caring that the people whom he talked about were just there listening.

Prince Hanariel glanced at them. They were quietly listening on their conversation. Ink and Marty were worriedly assessing Catherine’s wounds. Despite busying himself with tending to Catherine, Ink couldn’t help but overhear the preposterous tale of having them fed to those monstrous plickerbirds. It appears that everywhere in Vangora people had ridiculous rumors going on about their kind. It angered him that such baseless stories placed his friend in danger.

The prince walked to them and bent his knee. He gently grabbed her wrist, turned her arm around and examined her wound. He put his palm over it and murmured a short incantation. There was a soft white glow from his palm, then it was gone as well as the wound on Catherine’s arm. The cavity drilled by the plickerbird merely a closing red flesh. Catherine looked at the Prince’s eyes behind her mask awed and she thanked him bashfully.

“Well, I guess that is it. It has been an eventful journey for you. And we are almost at the Moon Castle. We better get going so that we can arrive there before noon. We’ll have a banquet for you to recover your strength. And I hope this serves as a reminder”-he looked at Marty and Catherine-“not just to the two of you but to all of you. Never wander around Valhalla by yourselves. Danger will only come to you. Best if you stay close to me,” Prince Hanariel said.

Mounting his klosus, the Prince went ahead, out of the cornfield. He passed by Dunli. He looked him in the eyes and gave him a silent message that he’ll personally oversee the corns regrowing as it is his fault that they were destroyed. Dunli bowed and was thankful his corns got destroyed for the first time. It only means that the Prince will be coming to stop by more often, and he was beyond excited for that moment. He waved enthusiastically as they left through the forest.

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