Without thinking, Hamelin’s hands transformed into wicked claws. He did not move, though, but held the man’s gaze while he steeled his heart.
“Oh… That’s a neat trick,” the man said, smiling as he took a look at Hamelin’s hands, “Who taught you that, I wonder?”
“Who are you?” Hamelin said, ignoring the man’s question, “And what’s with that name?”
“What? The Thousand Faced Rat King?” Piper laughed and squatted down so that their eyes were level, “That’s what they call you now, as they fearfully whisper in the night, those whom you command.”
Hamelin wrinkled his nose at the melodramatic title, but said nothing. He should have expected the feeble humans to immediately begin to make him into a nightmare story.
“As for who I am,” Piper shrugged, still squatting, “I am just a humble rat catcher, looking for prey.”
“But I am not your prey, am I?” Hamelin said, narrowing his eyes. However the man had discovered his real identity, if he had wanted to do harm, he would not have revealed himself first.
“Indeed you are not. You, Hamelin, took my prey when you killed Ouren.”
“The Inverse poison master?” Hamelin said furrowing his brow. So, the man had been hiding, possibly expecting someone was hunting for him.
“Poison master?” Piper laughed, “Oh no, that poor sod was barely a slave, nothing so grand as a master. However, in taking my prey, you also took hold of my attention. I have been watching you while you systematically took over Tremon, and I must say that I am impressed.”
“You were watching the whole time?”
“Of course. It was a marvelous show — especially the climax. The way you put the fear of the gods into your new underlings was truly awe inspiring.”
Swallowing, Hamelin was not sure what to do. He had made sure to be careful, and had not expected to be revealed so soon. He had to figure out what this man wanted, otherwise he would be operating in the blind.
“What is your aim? Why have you approached me without alerting anyone else?”
Piper smiled, his yellow teeth flashing in the dim light of the kitchen. “I am here to—”
“Why are you talking with my son?” Lord Whitter, Hamelin’s father, entered the room and with quick steps approach to tower above them both, looking down on Piper with one hand clasped around the sword at his hip.
Hamelin had immediately hidden his hands when he sensed the approach, quickly transforming them back into their original form.
Looking from the lord to Hamelin, Piper stood up and gave a shallow bow, “My Lord, I was simply having an enlightening discussion with the young lord here. I’m sure you must be very proud of him.”
From behind lord Whitter, Mosel stuck his head out and looked at Hamelin with a questioning glance. Shrugging, Hamelin deflected the unspoken question, and instead focused on the increasingly hostile air between his father and Piper.
“I heard you completed your work,” lord Whitter said, speaking carefully, “I will ensure you are rewarded for your efforts.”
“Oh, Father, please ask him to stay—!” Mosel began, but lord Whitter stopped him without ever looking in his direction.
“I thank you, My Lord,” Piper said, giving another bow, “However, I must admit that I have not been wholly truthful about my purpose in coming here today.”
“Oh?” Lord Whitter narrowed his eyes, simultaneously maneuvering to reach Hamelin and drag him to his side, “Do tell.”
“I am indeed a humble rat catcher, however, the rats I catch come not only from below, but also from beyond.”
Lord Whitter’s jaw clenched. Though not following the conversation, due to a lack of context, Hamelin had no problem identifying the hostility in his father’s eyes. “And what does that have to do with us?”
“Simple. As I arrived in Tremon, I received a summons.”
“We summoned you to do a job,” lord Whitter agreed, still catious.
“And I have completed the job,” Piper agreed, “But the summons I’m speaking about was not for me.” He pointed down at Hamelin and said, “The summons were for him.”
His father’s hand, which held onto Hamelin clenched with incredible force. Had his body not been physically enhanced, the pain would have been too much for an ordinary five-year-old.
“We will speak in my study,” lord Whitter said, still holding on to Hamelin, “Mosel, return to your room.”
“Now, Mosel!” Lord Whitter shouted, his face turning red with fury. Mosel bowed his head and ran off. From where he disappeared, Hamelin thought he heard the sound of soft sobbing.
“That was uncalled for, My Lord,” Piper said, although the grin on his face showed no signs of concern.
“You will stay silent and follow, do you understand?” Lord Whitter’s eyes were full of thunder as he stared down the insolent Piper. Still grinning, the man nodded and followed behind, as lord Whitter dragged Hamelin out of the kitchens and toward the study.
Once they got there, Hamelin was pointed to sit in a chair off to the side, while his father took a seat behind the table and faced Piper with a calculated gaze.
“Now, explain, from the beginning, what you mean,” he said. Piper shrugged, flute still in hand, and answered, “I think I already did, My Lord. Your son has been summoned, a summons that must be honored.”
“I know the law,” lord Whitter spat out, “But he is just a child. There is no way he could be qualified to receive a summons.”
“Oh?” Piper looked from lord Whitter to Hamelin, his smile widening, “I take it you have not shown him, Hamelin?”
Blood draining from his face, Hamelin bit down on his lip in frustration. He could take the offensive, but if he did, he would also have to kill his father. While they were estranged, he had to admit that lord Whitter had never treated him badly. It felt wrong to kill him, just so that he would remain silent.
“Shown me what?” Lord Whitter turned on Hamelin as well, eyes hard as steel, “Hamelin? What have you not shown me?”
Piper’s eyes were so full of glee that Hamelin had stab his fingernails into his palms to keep calm. Looking down onto the floor, while keeping his senses trained on the enemy whom he expected to attack at any moment, he tried to keep up the role he had played for the past five years.
“Speak!” Lord Whitter yelled and hammered the table. Keeping up appearances, Hamelin flinched and looked away, hoping that playing stupid would work.
“It seems your son is uncertain of what I speak,” Piper said, still smiling, “Then allow me to explain, My Lord. Your son may be a child, but he is a child who has made a contract with a niling. Such a feat is more than worthy of a summons, do you not agree?”
Looking up, Hamelin wrinkled his brow. Is he talking about Wither?
Turning his head, Hamelin was surprised to find his father having stood up, palms on the table, and completely white in the face. “Is he speaking the truth, Hamelin?” He said, voice thin as parchment.
Seeing no way out, other than physical violence, Hamelin decided to see where this was heading, and commanded Wither to show himself. Crawling out of his tunic, Wither took his place on Hamelin’s shoulder and bared his teeth in a small show of force.
Lord Whitter seemed to deflate like a balloon, falling back into his chair while staring at Wither with a horrified expression. “If that is not enough to convince you, then please have a look at this.” Piper drew out a dark scroll and unfurled it before lord Whitter’s eyes.
Hamelin’s father received the scroll and looked it over, before putting it down to place his head in his hands. In a voice edged with sorrow, he said, “My son… what have you done?”
Blinking, Hamelin looked from one to the other, confused as to what they were talking about. Piper looked pleasantly surprised at Hamelin’s lack of understanding, and said, “It seems you really didn’t know, lad, but that thing masquerading as a rat is what is known as niling — a creature of the Inverse.”
“The Inverse?” Hamelin said, pieces of the puzzles clicking together, “Then, when you said I had been summoned…?”
“Indeed, you have been summoned to the Inverse,” Piper said, spreading out his arms and grinning from ear to ear, “It is quite the honor, I tell you.”
“Father?” Hamelin looked to the stoic man, who still sat with his face hidden. When he finally looked up again, his steely resolve had returned to his eyes.
“Even if he is qualified, he is still a child,” lord Whitter said, calmly tapping the desk with a finger, “I do not believe you would be so callous as to send a child to the Inverse without time to prepare.”
“Of course,” Piper agreed, “We are not monsters, after all. Your son will have ten years to prepare, no more, no less.”
“Ten years, huh?” Lord Whitter leaned back and sighed, “You realize what you have robbed him off by coming here this early, don’t you?”
“Certainly, I do. However, those are your customs, not mine. You can choose to disregard it, if you like.”
Shaking his head, lord Whitter stood up and looked out the window, out on the fields of the Whitter estate. “Your summons have been received, rat catcher, I will make sure my son answers it when the time comes.”
“It is always a pleasure to work with someone so sensible,” Piper said, bowing. He turned to Hamelin, squatting down before him and handed him the flute he had used to entrance the rats. “This is for you, Hamelin. As long as you keep that with you, we will meet again one day, and perhaps then we can have some proper fun.”
Hamelin received the flute, uncertain as to the intentions of this strange man, or about what fate the two of them had just arranged for him. “I bid you farewell, My Lord,” Piper bowed once more to Hamelin’s father, before leaving the study. Last thing he did before closing the door was giving Hamelin one more wink.
Then they were alone, father and son. Lord Whitter still stood and stared out on the land, as if he could find some kind of answer out there if only he looked long enough.
“Father…?” Hamelin tried making contact, but there was no response. When he finally resolved to just stand up and leave, his father turned around and took him by the arm. “Father?” He tried making contact again, but the man just held him in an iron grip.
In fact, Hamelin was surprised by the force of the man’s hold. He might be able to slip out, but at the very least he would have to wound the man first. Instead of fighting it, he followed lord Whitter, as he walked through the manor and toward the stables.
Within moments, lord Whitter had a horse saddled, and put Hamelin on it, taking his place behind. “May I ask where you are going, My Lord?” The stable hand said, confused at the sudden departure.
“You may not,” was the cold answer, “Tell the lady Whitter that I will see her when I return.” With that they left in a flurry of hooves and dust. Once they passed through the manor gates, Hamelin turned to look at his home, quickly fading into the distance, while understanding less and less about what was going on.
Little did he know that it would be a long time before he would return.