Asten gulped and looked down at the small figure of the Inverse master, who, by size alone, could have been a child. Knowing that this man had broken into the Marns distillery and killed several thugs along with another, supposed, Inverse master made cold sweat break out across his back.
“I-I…” He tried to speak, but no words came out.
“Worry not,” said the vicious Halifax, teeth bared like an animal, “You won’t be in danger. It’ll merely be an experience to remember me by.”
“Go, lad,” said his grandfather, shaking his head as Asten turned to him with pleading eyes, “You will have to serve dutifully, hear?”
“That’s a good lad,” Halifax said, his voice hoarse and menacing, then pushed him towards the door. Following his grandpa, Asten walked out on the street, and looked back to find that Halifax was gone, just like the night before.
“I’ll be off,” said his grandpa, nodding sagely towards him, “You stay safe now, Asten. Don’t make a fool of yourself, and do as you’re told.” He then turned and left Asten all alone, shivering in the chill air of night.
“We’ll start off by going to the Marns,” said the hoarse voice of Halifax, coming from no particular direction, “I have a meeting with the family head.”
“You want me to go there?” Asten said, his voice breaking into a adolescent pitch, “To be killed?!”
“No one will kill you with me around. No one takes what belongs to me…” Was all the reply he got. Swallowing nervously, Asten began the walk to the home of the Marns family, located close to the distillery.
As the two moons made for their evening zenith, Asten arrived in front of the house, where a single guard stood and chewed tobacco. Stopping in front of the gate, the guard gave him an evil stare before saying, “Go on piss off, Lad, or I’ll beat’ya bloody.”
“I-I am,” Asten stammered, trying to keep the words that Halifax had whispered to him on the way coherent in his mind, “I am h-here to see Arden Marn on b-behalf of master Halifax.”
The guard raised an eyebrow and chewed thoughtfully on, before spitting on the ground and waving Asten off. “Last warning, kid. Piss off.”
As Asten watched, the man suddenly changed his expression and began dry-heaving. Eyes widening, he desperately tried to force air into his lungs, but with his throat swelling up, it became an impossible task. A very distinct, black line grew around his neck, like the collar a slave would wear.
“Try again, now,” Asten heard Halifax’s voice in his ear, so low he was certain only he could hear it.
“I am here to see Arden Marns on behalf of master Halifax,” Asten repeated, growing both more secure, as well as frightened by the display of power in front of him.
The guard’s bloodshot eyes looked desperately for anything that might relieve him of his suffering, in the focusing on the locked gate behind him. Fingers fumbling, and face growing purple with a lack of air, the guard managed find the keys, opening way just before he fell onto his knees.
“Well done,” Asten heard Halifax said, just as the guardsman was finally able to breathe air again, a liberty he enjoyed by falling onto the ground and heaving deeply for the source of life.
Hands shaking, and mind rattled, Asten walked stiffly up to the two story house that belonged to the Marns family and knocked on the door. Every instinct he possessed told Asten that he should be running away from this place as quickly as possible, but seeing what Halifax had just done to the guardsman, he forced himself forward, just as he had been instructed.
The door was soon opened by another thug, who gave Asten the stink-eye. “Who the hells let you in?” The man said, looking over Asten’s shoulder to see the guardsman still on the ground, desperately breathing for all he was worth.
“You did that?” The man asked and narrowed his eyes. Asten could hear the sound of cold steel leaving its leathery holster.
“N-No!” He quickly said, trying to keep his shaking hands still by his sides, “M-Master Halifax did. Please, let Arden Marn know that master Halifax is here to see him.”
The thug’s face went white at the mention of Halifax’ name, and seeing what he had already done to one man, there was no doubt in the thug’s mind what to do. “One moment. Stay put.”
The door shut, and Asten could hear boots running over floorboards, and someone shouting. A huge commotion ensued, before the door was opened by a young man with blond hair held in a cue, dressed in excellent clothes for a commoner.
“Are you master Halifax?” The young man said, his tone steady, even as Asten could see sweat breaking out all over his face.
“N-No… I’m Asten, of the old apothecary shop. I’ve come on behalf of master Halifax to greet the head of the Marns family.”
“Indeed?” The young man looked over Asten’s shoulder, seeing the same sight that the thug had seen, of the guardsman still choking on the ground behind. “I take it Halifax is nearby, then?”
“Very well, enter.” The young man swung the door wide and gestured for Asten to cross the portal. Swallowing, Asten entered the home of one of the three big, criminal families of Tremon. The young man led him towards the stairs, leading up to the first floor.
As they walked, he explained, “We have been awaiting this visit for some time. My father told everyone to be alert for anyone naming themselves ‘Halifax’, but it appears our man out front did not fully understand the gravity of the situation. I apologize, master… Asten, was it?”
“J-Just ‘Asten’ is fine, sir,” Asten said, very aware that he was in proud company.”
“I am Olivio, not a sir,” the young man said, looking over his shoulder with a feigned smile, “I would like it if we could be on good terms, Asten.”
Swallowing again, Asten tried to nod, but his neck was too stiff. It came out as a nervous shiver instead. “As you wish, master….” He saw Olivio raise a hand, and stopped himself.
“If you are to be ‘just’ Asten, I would also ‘just’ be Olivio. That seems only fair to me.”
This time, Asten managed to fully work his neck, nodding vigorously. “Of course, m— Olivio.”
The young man smiled, and gave a thankful nod, as he they stopped in front of a room on the upper floor. “My father is inside, Asten. He is very much looking forward to meeting you.”
“Thank you,” Asten said, only now fully realizing that he would soon be in front of a local powerhouse. If not for Halifax hiding in the shadow, Asten was sure neither Olivio or Arden would have any qualms about slitting his throat and leaving him in a ditch.
Olivio opened the door, and followed Asten into the room. Inside was a small study, with books lining the cases on the wall and a small desk in the center. Standing at a window overlooking the city outside, stood a tall man with wild red hair and a thick beard, dressed in a common tunic and pants, lined with threads of silver.
Once Asten was inside, the man turned to face him, baring green eyes down upon the poor apothecary’s apprentice. Bowing his head, Asten said, “Greetings, master Arden. I’ve come on behalf of master Halifax.”
“So I’ve been told,” said Arden, placing his arms behind his back, “Pray tell, why did this great master of yours not come in person?”
“I—” Asten got no further, before a chuckle from a dark corner alerted him to the presence of a fourth person in the room.
Out of a shadow, Halifax’ small figure emerged, like a ghost appearing out of emptiness. “Why would I come through the front door,” he said, in a hoarse and raspy voice, “When I can come and go as I please?”
Asten saw true fear shine through Arden’s green eyes, as he looked upon the small, cowled figure in front of him. “You are Halifax?”
“And you’ve come to claim me?”
“Your family, Arden Marn. I’ve come to claim your family.”
The head of the Marn family did everything to look as casual as possible, but the way his mouth formed a thin line, devoid of blood, spoke of the discipline it took for him to stay civil.
“What makes you think you’ve got the right?” He finally said, allowing some blood to flow into his now-white lips.
The little shadow snapped its fingers, making a show out of the inhuman claws protruding from the humanoid digits. As soon as he did, Arden grabbed his throat and began dry-heaving, just as the guard outside had done. The same black line appeared around his throat as well, the sight of which made Asten swallow nervously. He wondered if Halifax had put the same curse on him.
“Father!” Olivio rushed in and caught his father before the man fell onto his knees. Eyes red with fury, Olivio turned on the assailant, drawing his belt knife. The moment the cold steel was out in the open, Halifax merely snapped his fingers again, and Olivio grabbed his throat as well. Both men of the Arden family were soon on their knees, fighting desperately for life.
In the end, Arden raised both his hands in surrender. Halifax snapped his fingers again, and both of them were released from their torment.
“This gives me the right, would you not agree, master Arden?” Halifax said, his teeth bared in a wicked, silvery grin.
“Y-Yes… I agree,” Arden said, still heaving for air, “The Marn family will serve at your command, master Halifax.”
“Excellent. I expect great things from you, master Arden. For now, though, tell me what you know of the Basons and the Duns.”