Disclaimer: I STILL don't own Hollow Kingdom
AN: Lo and Behold! Chapter 3! XD Let this be proof that I NEVER abandon ANY fic EVERRRRR
The man shuddered as the wind howled and shrieked; great gusts of wind nearly blowing him down. The branches of the trees rattled fiercely. Purple lightning streaked the sky above.
A violent death seemed inescapable now…
But the master's advice regarding this land, Hallow? Hollow? Hill held true:
Stay in the circle of ancient oaks and none meaning harm will approach you.
Wax in your ears and none shall persuade you.
If noticed, move only in the safety of daylight.
Bring me what you find.
Strange, cryptic instructions that polite society would find mysterious and thrilling were point-blank orders for Hunters.
Often they were only given the name of the nearby town and a small sheet of paper listing these "helpful" suggestions.
Sometimes it was "Stand in the circle of toadstools at the hour past midnight" or "Play this flute as the Harvest Moon rises."
But every order ended the same "Bring me what you find."
Sometimes they were exceedingly bizarre and humiliating, "Wear this daisy chain as a crown as you follow the road. Tell no one your name."
Worse still, was that those that didn't follow these rules to the letter had a nasty habit of vanishing altogether.
But those that returned, and with tangible goods…O they were handsomely rewarded.
Sam swallowed nervously at the glowing eyes around the clearing.
He'd definitely be earning that reward. He fidgeted and checked his pocket watch, lightning flashed—briefly illuminating the numerals.
A shaky sigh of relief left him, three hours until sunrise.
He could last that …probably …he'd never faced opposition before, but that didn't matter—soon they'd have to leave.
He glanced down at the boy, smirking 'and then you'll be coming with me.'
Forgetting his peril for the moment, Sam began fantasizing his future.
He'd made quite a find this time. Far better than his last eight months, where he had nothing to show but an empty leprechaun's pot and an old, dying pixie.
The latter had been of interest to the Master, but she hadn't lasted more than a day. Her frail wings crumbled upon being touched—and she was long dead by the time Sam relinquished her.
Still, he'd gotten several silver pieces for her (not bad at all) but he'd have gotten gold had she lived.
As it was, she had a special spot on the master's desk: pickled in a jar.
Just think what price a living, breathing baby goblin would fetch?
Goblins watched anxiously from their spots around the clearing.
Claws flexed, fangs gnashed but nothing could be done.
Force could not be used in the "truce circle" and the human had shoved something in his ears the moment he noticed his one-sided "negotiations" weren't working.
Wax it seemed, for he now seemed unaware of any noise at all.
Quite a feat—the wind howled like a banshee and then there were the great SNAP of purple sparks that floated and burst around their king.
Marak was beyond furious; his long knotted fingers dug into the bark of an oak—great scorch marks burned deeper with every moment.
Somehow…somehow that human had known.
About the ring of ancient oaks. About goblins. About their limitations.
One couldn't be persuaded by what one couldn't hear and wouldn't make eye contact with.
The human simply stared down, effectively ignoring it all.
There was brilliance in this scheme, and perhaps were his child not a part of it, Marak would be amused. It was so rare to find humans knowledgeable of old folklore, let alone arming themselves with it.
As it was, Marak only felt increasingly frustrated; no amount of "Bring me the child" or "I'll let you live if" orders were going to work.
"Catspaw" he hissed, again to no effect. If only the boy were awake, he could give an order.
A goblin's loyalty ran deep and Catspaw would trip over himself to obey such a command (able to read the mood of his sire easily through the bond they shared).
Marak gnashed his teeth.
It was strange and unsettling.
He should have been able to rouse the boy, but a fog had settled between them—cutting off the continuous flow of magic they shared.
Rather like a twine of string wrapped too tight around a limb and he was losing circulation.
To interrupt their connection like this …there was powerful magic involved …and what had started as anger turned to dread.
Was this the work of another sorcerer?
Was that why Catspaw's defensive magic hadn't reacted? A strong spell intervened? A trap?
But the circle should've nullified those possibilities so why? Why was Catspaw unconscious?
Was he harmed and THEN dragged into the circle?
His foster daughter had discovered early on that swift acts of violence could catch a goblin prince off guard.
While hard punches to the arm or stomach delivered by the hands of a little girl, only served to infuriate his young son…what harm could an adult wreak?
Marak sighed and ran a hand through his shaggy hair; all those times he intercepted his son's retaliations; insisting on the inequality of power between the two children.
Kate would get so upset whenever she witnessed these squabbles. Marak disliked his wife's anguish and since Til was far too belligerent to reason with, the Goblin King focused on his son.
All those warnings of the unfairness of a goblin prince taking revenge on a hapless human like Til who had no magic of her own …
He cautioned the boy that if he didn't curb his temper, his father would unleash some potent magic of his own.
After a particularly malicious singeing of Matilda's hair, which resulted in burnt ears (much to Kate's distress). His poor elf had such a soft spot for that girl.
For punishment, Marak transformed Catspaw into a marble paperweight to sit on his desk—where he could keep an eye on him for the day.
After that there'd been a sullen acceptance that Til was off-limits and Catspaw began earnestly ignoring her.
Marak had considered it progress. It was an important lesson to learn: A good king did not bully his subjects, no matter how irritating they might be.
He'd made such a point of not attacking or persuading or manipulating or transforming those weaker than them—he'd never really touched the subject of underestimating adversaries.
He'd been too vague, he realized. It was quite probable that Catspaw thought these principles applied to ALL humans.
Had years of enforcing that train of thought caused hesitation on the boy's part?
When this was over, he'd be sure to clarify that humans IN their kingdom were a special exception.
Sam swallowed nervously at the many pairs of eyes that glowed from the woods.
Considering the glimpses he'd seen of snouts and beaks and cat's eyes and fangs.
He felt he'd stayed fairly calm.
Especially since wax didn't seem like nearly enough to save him from a horde of angry goblins.
The master said he'd be safe within this clearing that their magic had no effect here.
That no creature meaning harm could approach.
It also meant that he was effectively trapped; should he leave the circle…he was dead.
What really had him anxious though was how that one ghastly goblin kept coming closer and closer—through the outer ring of trees and now he stood leaning against one trunk of the inner trees.
His wicked mismatched eyes glinted malevolently, every time Sam glanced at him.
To be truthful, Sam was rather grateful that his little goblin was downright normal looking in comparison; perhaps they grew uglier with maturity.
Regardless, he'd be much easier to smuggle.
The man idly took the paw between his hands—and studied it with interest. Was his whole arm feline?
Marak's fingers twitched; he so dearly wanted to kill that man—sitting so smug.
The human's arrogance mounted with every hour that passed and he remained unharmed.
He currently sat in the middle of the clearing, fiddling with the child's paw—deeply impressed with how the claws extended and retracted.
Marak's eyes narrowed—no respect at all for his son's magic hand.
Honestly, the gall…actually possessing such audacity…to poke and prod the child like a specimen …
And in front of his kin no less!
The man checked his watch and smiled.
Marak's teeth gnashed: the man was waiting them out—he knew that the goblins' time out here was ending.
Already they moved to darker shadows and behind larger tree trunks.
Naturally the king grew more and more agitated as morning birds began to twitter in the trees.
Sunlight approached—the sky lightened to softer, paler shades of purple.
And while Thaydar had been sent to fetch Kate (who would both be able to enter the ring AND endure the swiftly approaching dawn) time was running out for poor Catspaw.
Goblin flesh was sensitive to sunlight, even more so in the especially young.
A reason most goblin parents were quick to build immunities in their children; so that if one WAS trapped outside they'd be able to endure it.
While small doses of daylight wouldn't kill Catspaw; it'd be a sharp foreign pain that would rattle him, and the first exposure usually left a young goblin weak for days.
"Sir?" his guards whispered.
Marak's lips pressed into a grim line.
They needed to fall back. Those with animal forms would take them and stay. The rest …the rest would retreat.
When the door to their suite slammed open, Emily's head ran through various scenarios all involving Til. Her melodramatic foster niece had been known to barge inside looking for Kate.
Especially as the sisters made it a point to meet once a week for tea after the children were tucked in bed.
Nothing could have prepared for her this, "What do you mean Catspaw's been captured?"
Thaydar looked quite frustrated; apparently he felt he'd wasted too much time already searching various spots for the King's Wife.
Still he did the courtesy of explaining the situation to a stricken Kate, loud enough for Seylin and Emily to hear.
Perhaps it was apology for so loudly disturbing their cozy quarters—her children would likely be awake for hours now.
"What was Marak doing when this occurred?" Emily demanded. "Picking daisies?"
Seylin threw her an annoyed look from his spot by the basinet: her husband was unsuccessfully trying to soothe their now squalling newborn.
While his wife loudly fretted over her nephew, his sister-in-law had gone stock still—quietly horrified (which somehow was far worse).
"Kate!" Emily demanded, "Ask that snake of yours."
"Em-" her husband tried to intervene. Emily had a bossy attitude which only worsened in times of stress.
"Fifty Kings did this, forty Queens did that!" she spat angrily—shoving her husband out of the way, as she picked up her infant, "Certainly this sort of thing has happened at least once before?"
"No one has ever dared capture the prince" Seylin murmured.
At Em's incredulous look, he replied simply, "Fear of retribution."
"Goblin revenge" Kate stated tonelessly, and for once she didn't look too put off by the thought of it.
"Completely unprecedented" Seylin muttered as he pulled his boots on.
"Papa?" a little voice called.
"No, no, no" Seylin replied wearily "Bedtime."
"Papa, it's noisy" a very young goblin boy whined, twisting a teddy bear (with only one eye) between his claw tipped hands. "I wanna story."
"Sweetheart" Emily called over the baby's discontent "Mama will tell you a story in a little while. How bout you go rest?"
"Too loud to rest" the boy complained matter-of-factly and none of the adults dared argue with that. Seyro inherited his mother's bluntness and much of his father's looks—these two traits combined so that he looked as stubborn as he was.
Seylin frowned—they just didn't have time for this.
"To bed with you!" Seylin snapped harsher than he meant, for his young son's eyes went round and glassy.
Instantly remorseful, Seylin took a step forward too reassure him, the child darted back to his room.
Seylin sighed as his wife sent him a sharp look.
"We must go NOW!" Thaydar insisted.
Emily watched from the doorway as the three sped off, lips pursed with worry as she rocked her baby.
"How is it that this has never occurred?" Kate asked quietly. After all, dear Em had a point.
"Well even Elves have standards you know" Thaydar rumbled tactlessly, "They wouldn't slaughter a child without reason."
Unlike humans, Kate thought bitterly.
Seylin scowled at the head of the guard, who shrugged a bit sheepishly—as though just realizing how terrible that sounded.
Now their queen knew exactly how much danger the poor child was in.
"He's the goblin prince" Seylin reasoned as they sped through the corridors "He has your military magic and Marak's; he's a very formidable opponent."
"Yes, even in war times, the heir can defend himself fairly well or at least long enough for the King to arrive."
Kate nodded grimly as she sped towards the iron door that led outside the kingdom.
Even though no one mentioned it; they all knew that those heirs were adults, and their heir was only ten years old—and hadn't yet mastered half of the magic those other princes knew.
Usually, tradition dictated the heir not leave the stronghold until he was of reasonable age.
In their era of peace, Marak had become increasingly lenient. And Kate couldn't help being angry with him. Their poor child! In danger! And on his first night out too! And all because Marak had been bored lately and decided to liven things up by taking Catspaw outside.
Kate commanded the door to open with a loud authoritative voice that caught both goblin men by surprise. They'd always known her to be rather demure and quiet.
She paid them no mind—she had to save her son!
Goblins were a nocturnal breed—the sun held no love for their kind; and she was making her malice known.
Marak hissed as the sun rose; blinding his sensitive eyes.
Sunlight: it had a tendency to give vertigo and nausea to those unaccustomed to it.
For Marak, it often gave him a migraine that would last for hours.
He pulled the hood of his robe farther forward over his face (grateful now that Bulk had retrieved it for him—though at the time, being bothered about clothing while his son was in danger…well, suffice to say, his words were a little sharp.)
Slowly the shadows of the oaks gave way to the sun's rays. Light hit and with no protection; Catspaw's instincts reared to life.
The child let out a horrific shriek that set every goblin's teeth on edge.
The captor snapped to attention at the sudden thrashing of the little body—barely missed a swipe of claws as the child flipped onto his stomach and curled up—shielding himself as much as possible.
The child released a low wail, as he buried his face in his hands.
And THAT was enough.
Marak hurried into the clearing; the urgency of his concern finally outweighing the need for revenge.
But the moment his eyes locked with the human's, his blood sang with hate.
Centuries of magic deeply anchored in the trees flared to life and forced him to his knees.
He growled in frustration, fingers clenched the grass; he could almost hear his ancestors mocking him—forcing him into humility.
A piteous moan of "Father?" reached his ears.
Eyelids fluttered, as his son squinted through his fingers, "Father?"
Pale-eyes blinked fast and hard "Father? Father, where-I" he choked "I-I can't-"
"I am here" Marak replied low, and steady, and calm. "I'm coming over to you now. Close your eyes and they won't burn so much."
There was a miserable nod.
"Breathe deeply" Marak instructed in what Catspaw deemed his ruler voice. "Try to distance yourself. Pain is just an unpleasant sensation. You need to focus on the task at hand. Concentrate on my voice and trust your ears."
Sam watched in morbid fascination.
The little goblin really was in pain; already his fair silver skin was reacting harshly from the light.
Thin cracks criss-crossed his flesh the way sun hardens mud.
Brown liquid oozed from the deeper cracks …
Disgusting … the Master would've loved it.
Amazing really, that creatures (as strange and deadly as these) should have such simple weaknesses.
Why, panic had reduced the boy to muttering gibberish!
Or at least it seemed that way until a deeper voice responded.
Sam realized belatedly that the great monster he'd seen before was now in the clearing.
He nearly jumped out of his skin in fright as the creature slowly made its way forward—hands clawing the grass as he crawled.
The master said no full-grown beast could enter.
Yet there he was and somehow the sight of this monster in daylight made him that much more terrifying.
Even despite the cloak that trailed the ground as it moved, Sam saw enough to make his stomach turn.
Yet he couldn't tear his gaze away from its strange body—one shoulder higher than the other—ears that flapped like a terrier dog's—six fingers…six!
Hands like pale spiders nestled in the grass; long knotted fingers attached to large strong hands that could wrap around his throat and throttle him easily.
Much more fearsome than the little goblin he'd caught.
The monster rumbled something again and Sam's heart pounded at the sight of his awful sharp teeth.
The boy murmured in response, and thrust a hand in the monster's direction.
Like an old man reading print far too small for his liking, the larger goblin squinted at where the younger one was—as if looking for something.
Then his expression changed to realization and he snatched the smaller hand in his own.
Sam's eyes widened; it was the strangest thing.
He understood beasts guarding their den and feeding their young and what not.
Though, he supposed he'd envisioned goblins being hatched and just amassing into hordes that lived in caves and logs and such.
It seemed much more likely than this …this implied some sense of responsibility for the welfare of the younger one.
To his even greater surprise, the monster removed his cloak and wrapped it around the boy.
Why, it seemed like… could it be that the monster CARED? Had actually raised him?
Unbidden, an image popped into his head of older goblins rocking basinets or taking strolls with a baby carriage.
It seemed so nonsensical; so ridiculous he couldn't believe he was considering it…
Yet he couldn't quite deny what transpired right in front of him.
The two creatures continued their strange noises…
His eyes widened in disbelief.
It was a different language altogether: Monster Speech.
Oh the Master would pay him so well, if he survived this.
Marak took a deep breath; the sun was so damned bright—turned his vision into a mass of white and grey and green.
Another whimper from his son's blurred form had him pulling the child in as close as possible.
"Enough of that; you are alright" he insisted sharply "Now stand up. Stand up"
The boy obeyed, and his father steadied his wobbly form "Now you and I are going home. Can you sense home?"
"Yes. I…I'm facing that way?"
"Yes. Good. You and I are going to leave the clearing that way—the moment we are out. You will transform into an animal the way I showed you. Can you do that?"
Catspaw wiped his nose on his sleeve "Yes sir."
"Good boy." He could not afford to carry or drag the boy: it had to be by mutual agreement.
Catspaw released a shaky sigh and his breath hitched.
"We're leaving right now" Marak stated, as he took hold of the paw and coaxed him forward. "Stay close this time" the phrase was sharp as it left his mouth.
Catspaw must've sense the danger in that statement—the depth of his displeasure—for he rushed to obey.
Marak didn't know whether it was the dizzying effects of sunlight or the heavy reprimand in his words, but Catspaw leaned heavily against him as they moved. Practically a part of his father's shadow.
Catspaw glanced up at his father's stern profile.
He was in deep trouble.
"No no no no" he heard the human moaned, too intimidated to take on the grown goblin—He began fervently winding the crank of the trap.
A lilting melody wafted through the air and the child stopped dead in his tracks—just inches from the ring of trees.
He glanced over his shoulder, steps faltering.
So beautiful …
His fingers began pulling away from his father's grasp.
"Do you hear it?"
"Catspaw!" Marak hissed in Goblin "Come to me!"
The child faced him immediately. Right, right he was following orders to…to…leave the clearing, yes!
That was it!
The music grew louder and with it Catspaw's confusion mounted.
Wait, what was he doing again?
He glanced up into a solemn pair of mismatched eyes.
An order! Yes, he was following an order.
Left foot. Right foot. Left foot.
A particularly beautiful refrain, again made him freeze in wonderment.
And then he felt it. A hand roughly grabbed his collar but before he could even register the force, it was gone!
All he heard was a resounding CRACK!
Marak watched in fascination as the human was hurled from the clearing.
NO force was tolerated here: not Goblin, Elvish or even apparently Human.
Before his back even hit, the goblins had him pinned to the forest floor.
Marak smirked in triumph; Good. He wanted that human for questioning.
Still there were some things that were even more important; like getting his heir back underground.
The child seemed to struggle earnestly against some silent, invisible force.
All Marak could see in the clearing was the glint of some gold, egg-shaped toy.
Naturally the King was far from impressed.
He repeated his command to his son and waited.
Goblin loyalty always prevailed—their blood almost ensured it.
Even half delirious, in pain, or enchanted a goblin subject will strive to obey its king to the best of its ability.
For the Goblin Prince this held particularly true: his breeding made him intensely faithful to his kingdom.
After what seemed an eternity, the child left the clearing and entered his father's waiting arms.
Meanwhile the strange toy slowly levitated and floated towards the King and Prince.
Suddenly it didn't seem so harmless.
Marak instinctively moved back—tugging Catspaw with him.
The king was unsure what to make of it; usually he could sense the type of magic—dwarven, elvish, or demonic. But this … this was unlike anything he'd encountered.
He glanced at Catspaw, whose expression was strangely blank.
He pulled the child even closer, who whined and twisted in his arms trying to look at the egg.
Marak ignored the complaints, and continued maneuvering them both back through the tree roots.
"Father, stop, no, I wanna hear this part-"
Marak couldn't hear anything besides his men barking orders and his son's dragging feet.
Yet the boy seemed mesmerized, hypnotized, ensnared by a siren's song.
Sirens … he mulled thoughtfully.
He abruptly pulled his young son into his chest and clapped his hands over the little ears.
As if aware of the resistance, the egg petals began opening again and closing and opening again.
Suddenly Marak heard music if it could be called that. Harsh grating notes tilted his world and made his head pound. It was almost impressively painful; especially since he never thought anything could be worse than M at the piano forte.
And then it began playing louder and faster—warbling its measures until it became so clashing and off tune that Marak winced.
The petals clicked open—wider and wider and wider.
Catspaw began jerking and twitching in his hold.
Trying to distract me into letting him go, he thought shrewdly, still if it's basing its attack on our goblin ears … let us see what it does to canine ones.
Decisively, Marak cast a spell transforming father and son into wolves. He picked his dazed cub by the scruff of his neck and swiftly darted away.
Almost instantaneously, the music abruptly stopped and the egg fell with a loud metallic ring.
Marak glared at the trap, how did that human create such a thing?
The wolf pup in his jaws squirmed back to life.
"Father?" it yipped. "Father I-what…what happened? We…moved? Just now?"
Marak set the pup down as he morphed back to his goblin form.
"Stay in that shape" he told the boy sternly.
Marak called sharply in goblin.
His men responded, none too gently dragging the human to their position.
The human stared up at him wide-eyed and shaking.
The wolf pup yipped, and sniffed, and stared rather accusatorily at the prisoner.
Marak knelt beside his son, as he too stared at the man—his own eyes far more feral than the wolf's.
"And what praytell is your name sir?"
"S-so you c-can speak as well?" the human whispered.
"Indeed" Marak began eerily pleasant, showing off a smile full of sharp, dark teeth. He rubbed a triangle ear of the pup beside him, "Taught this one myself."
The man stared at the little wolf—at its lion's paw. Shape-shifters—just like folklore said.
The man squeaked in fear—as if sensing on some intimate level, that of all the goblin children to snatch, he'd picked someone of terrible importance. Someone he'd regret ever endangering at all.
"What? No questions? You seemed so interested in him moments ago. And I assure you, I know all there is to know about this one." He paused; smile widening "This one is my son."
The man looked distinctly green now.
"Orders, sir?" his guards asked.
"Well if he's so interested in goblins, why don't we indulge him? In fact, I'd love to enlighten him myself."
"Understood. We'll take him to the dungeons."
"Yes, make him very comfortable."
The man shuddered at the wicked glee in the goblin leader's voice.
The guards grinned and cheerfully dragged their prisoner back to the kingdom—making sure to hit him on every rock and tree root their path had to offer.
"Tinsel," the king nodded to a guard still standing near him. "Bring that trap to my workshop, but be careful."
The grey-skinned goblin cautiously approached the golden egg—hands spell casting a branch into a rough-hewn cage to carry it—Seylin could have made something more elaborate—but it would do.
Marak tucked the wolf cub under one strong arm, using the other to push his wild hair from his eyes.
He eyed the golden instrument suspiciously, if his theory was correct …
"Have all the corridors cleared of children before you bring it through. Do you understand? I don't want a single child anywhere near it!"
"Yes sir" the grey skinned goblin agreed and hefted the small cage up.
Marak released a frustrated sigh as he blinked against the harsh sunlight.
His mismatched eyes scrutinized the wolf cub in his arms.
"We are going to have a very serious conversation about obedience, young man."
The pup whined and tried to snuffle him affectionately.
"We are" Marak repeated "And you are going to explain to me what part of 'under no circumstances are you to stray from my side' you failed to understand."
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