If lady Mina had been afraid before, she was absolutely terrified now. Master Jorn was a beast of a man, the kind she had dealt with all her life, but he was still just a man. Even if he’d had his way with her tonight, she would have found a way to punish him — it would not be the first time for her. However, the creature stepping ever closer was something she wanted nothing to do with.
The intruder knelt down beside the still-convulsing man on the ground, placing two fingers at his neck. “He’ll survive,” a hoarse voice confirmed, he then rummaged through Jorn’s pockets, looking for something. The white rat on the intruder’s shoulder hissed, baring its teeth. The yellow eyes, shining like lanterns within the shadow from the cowl, gave the rodent a curious look, before turning their attention back on lady Mina.
“Well, My Lady, I hate to say I was right, but… I did tell you there was a traitor in your midst. It’s unfortunate that you would not listen to me… perhaps you’d be more inclined to do so now?”
Her meeting with this thing an hour earlier had not been a pleasant experience, and she half-way regretted not having called every guard in the building to search for it. Only, because the idiot, Jorn, had butted in, she had been forced to put the man in his place. If she had admitted after-the-fact that someone had actually been with her, she would have lost all credibility. She was beginning to suspect that this unknown creature had been very meticulous in its timing.
“Ahh, yes, I suppose you can’t really answer me now. Nasty paralytic, that one… I’m looking forward to analyzing it.” Yellow eyes came closer, and a gnarled hand withdrew a small flask, which the intruder opened and tilted towards her slack-jaw mouth. Of course, she tried to resist as much as she could, but the paralytic was too strong. Only when the first drops of the tincture hit her tongue, did she recognize the slow return of sensation and motor control she had been missing.
“It will take a while for your body to fully move,” said the intruder through silvery teeth, “But you should be able to talk after only a moment. Do you feel it?”
Instead of answering the question, lady Mina worked the muscles of her jaw until they obeyed her, then her tongue, and finally she said, “What do… you want… from me… Halifax?”
The yellow eyes flashed with mirth. “Oh, how very interesting. You know who I am. I’m impressed.”
As she used it, her control of her mouth became stronger, allowing her to speak more fluently. She focused, intently, knowing she had to buy time for the rest of her body to regain function. “Your takeover of… the Marn family was… subtle… but their men are not stupid,” she said, fighting to sit up and face her foe with at least a semblance of dignity, “They hear things, or figure them out… and men always like to talk more than they like to listen. Eventually… that talk reaches a bed with one of my girls, and when it does… it reaches me.”
“So tell me,” said Halifax, leaning in close, “What have these bedtime tales told you about me?”
His small stature belied an abhorrent power differential between the two of them, as well as the cruelty she saw reflected in those nauseating, yellow eyes. This beast was more than willing to take her life, should she prove of no use to him. In her current position, she needed to impress the creature who held her life in its hands.
“That you infiltrated the Marn brewery and killed a decently skilled Inverse master, without anyone noticing you, meaning you are most likely an Inverse master yourself.”
Halifax tilted his head, eyes scrutinizing her closely. “Go on,” he said.
“You being here suggest that taking over the Marn family was only the first step. You intend to take my family as well, finishing off the Basons… perhaps at the fights in two days time?”
“Not bad… what else?”
Sinking, her mind raced to come up with some sense behind the actions of the intruder. It had been a week since he had taken over the Marn family, and he was only now coming after her. His ability to enter her room without her noticing meant he would have been able to take her out days ago — so why had he not done so?
“You want something from me,” she concluded, looking straight into those terrifying eyes, even as they made her stomach churn.
“That much is obvious,” Halifax said, dismissively waving her suggestion away, “Do better, Minera Dun — that is your full name, is it not?”
Shaking, she dismissed the question on her tongue, and instead tried making sense of the chaos around her, while, simultaneously, struggling to regain bodily control.
“My family is the weakest of the three. Our strength lies in soft power, but very little wealth. Your time would be better spent figuring out how to take over Basons, and once in control, it would be a small matter to force me to accept your leadership. The only reason you wouldn’t do that is if you needed my family for whatever your planning to do to the Bason family.”
She was certain of her analysis. The creature in front of her was a force of pure rational thought —she could see it in those hateful eyes— and it would not waste time on her if there was no benefit to doing so.
“Close, but no dice,” Halifax said, shaking his head, “Taking over your family might make some aspects of my plan easier, but it also complicates other avenues. No, I am not here for your family, lady Minera, I am here for you.”
The thought of this beast lusting after her made her want to throw up. Dealing with men was easy, but monsters? Lady Mina wanted nothing to do with this creature.
“Oh, I see you’ve misunderstood me, lady Minera,” Halifax’s grin widened, amused by her antics. “I do not care for your flesh, like this pathetic excuse for a man. Nor do I care for the little family you’ve assembled, or the meager profits you have accumulated, I am after something else entirely.”
“What?” She was finally able to work her arms, which she used to prop up her body and take an inelegant, but more dignified, seated position.
“Let me answer your question with an observation. Over the past week, I have searched through every book with even a scrap of information about your family and your home. I have talked to the people who know of how the Purple Palace does its business, and how it functioned in the past, and you know what I found?”
Hesitantly, she shook her head.
“I found a whorehouse which has been exchanging cheap beer for a more expensive wine, alongside more luxurious suites and decor. I’ve found a brothel which now refers itself as a ‘palace’ in sharp contrast to it’s true nature, and an assembly of girls who are being taught much more than how to spread their legs.”
She clenched her jaw, fighting to keep her face in neutral folds. How had he come by this information? Who had he talked to? She wanted to scream, but kept herself under complete control. Knowledge was power, and right now he held all the cards.
“From art and music to dancing; you’ve instructed your girls in all the higher forms of culture, allowing for a more affluent clientele, as well as the favor of the mayor himself — well done on that one, I’d say.”
Her face turned whiter with each point, making her appear ever more ghostly in the dimly-lit room.
“You’ve slowly been turning away from regular whoring towards entertainment and leisure. Your skill at gathering information is surely unmatched in this small place, which is also why the Marn family cut you off from their ale supply, in an attempt to halt your growth.”
He leaned over her, staring into her luscious eyes with his own of sickly yellow. “Some might even say,” he said, his voice turning into a hoarse whisper, “That you’re trying to claw your way out of the lucrative underground for a shot at a respectable business. Now, why is that, I wonder?”
She held his eyes; forced herself to keep looking into those bottomless pits of cruelty. Her instincts told her that her life depended on avoiding the slightest hint of weakness. All she allowed herself was a nervous swallow.
“Not going to answer?” His voice was like rough silk, scratching at her ears. “That’s fine, I don’t mind you keeping secrets. However, you ambition is doomed to failure, since the mud will only cling to you more, the harder you struggle.”
He waved his hand toward master Jorn and continued, “Case in point. This man only exploited a slight weakness in your organization, and managed to get one of the very girls whom you have raised as your own to betray you. If he can do it, so can others, and eventually they will force you back into the dirt alongside themselves.”
Cold sweat erupting across her back, lady Mina held her expression in entirely neutral folds. The betrayal by one of her protegés hurt a lot, but she did not like where this creature was going. “What do you suggest, then?”
That vicious smile again. She forced back the instinctual response to shiver.
“Let’s do this: you will enter my service, and in return I will protect you from any outside force. You will have all the peace you need to clean house and change you business further. You get all you want, and I get a loyal servant. Win-win, don’t you think?”
She leaned forward, making sure the anger she felt boiling inside was visible in her eyes, and spoke in the calmest tone of voice she could manage, “I will die before I hand over what’s mine to a man.”
Her voice echoed through the room. Halifax’s grin went slack. He stepped backward, placing one hand over his face, as if he had received a mortal blow. For a moment, she thought she had impressed her will upon this beast; taught him that she would not bend, no matter what he did.
Only when he removed his hand again, did she realize the depth of her mistake.
“Aww man… I’m really not suited for the role of the hero, am I?” He said, his voice tinged with a chuckle. The grin on his face had resumed, but instead of playful cruelty, it now displayed the excitement of a hunter, baring down on its prey.
“Should I perhaps play the villain instead?”
She blinked, and the cowled figure in front of her was gone. Breath caught in her chest, she was about to force her stiff body up on its feet when an icy pressure paralyzed her as effectively as the wine had done.
All she could do was sit, as a cold hand caught her by the neck; five sharp pricks penetrating through her skin and drawing blood. Looking down, without moving her head, she managed to catch a glimpse of a bony hand, as well as a clawed thumb. It was the hand of a monster.
“An ultimatum, then,” a hoarse whisper on the right side made her look out the corner of her eye, desperate to at the very least see the beast that would end her. “You will serve me, or you will die. How does that sound?”
Lady Mina was familiar with monsters. Every night, she was visited by them in her dreams. She had lived through nightmares and had prevailed. Although her every instinct told her to give this monster everything it wanted, in order to survive, she understood better than anyone that giving in would only make the monster stronger.
“No,” she breathed, her voice barely a recognizable sound, “I told you: I will die before any man takes what is mine.”
“And that is where you get me wrong,” said the beast, its silvery smile and sickly eyes the only thing she could see, “I am no man, Minera Dun. Nor am I a mere creature of darkness, I am the darkness. You cannot fight me, for all I have to do is wait. In time, all things return to the darkness. You will be mine.”
The pressure on her neck increased. She felt her blood as it was squeezed out, blooming around the claws piercing her skin, flowing down her neck in shallow rivers.
Then, with the stroke of a brush, the hand was gone. The icy pressure from behind vanished as well, leaving her breathless, nearly collapsing in her seat.
“Excellent,” the creature stood before her once more, wiping his hand with a towel, which he then discarded upon Jorn’s unconscious form.
“Excellent?” She said, confused.
“Yes. Rejoice, Minara, because you have shown yourself unrelenting in the face of coercion as well as intimidation, I will not only make you a wealthy woman, I will also fulfill your deepest desire.”
“What do you know of my desires?” She said, scoffing.
“I know what happened that night,” Halifax closed in. The white rat on his shoulder grinned in tune with its master. “I know what your father took from you. I know how living without it is so painful that you’re tempted to end it all… each and every day.”
Stunned, her mouth open and jaw slack, she watched him approach, until he was right in front of her. A clawed hand reached out and gently caressed her cheek. For the first time, the cruelty of his yellow eyes abated, and instead she saw… understanding.
“Serve me, Minera Dun, and I will swallow your sins.”