Chapter 8 – The Threat Underneath (1)

Going through mutagenic transformation and reaching a higher stage of withermancy was an exhaustive process, demanding a lot of energy. Hamelin had to ingest food as quickly as possible, or risk adverse effects from the change.

Like a shadow he passed over the forest-floor, back to the Whitter mansion. It being a peaceful area meant there was no guard on night watch, which was an advantage to Hamelin’s nightly activities. Despite this, he had not dared to experiment inside the manor, due to his weakness and status in the family. Had he been caught, there would have been a whole lot of explaining to do, and a lot of suspicion.

Now, however, he was an acolyte stage withermancer with all the newfound strength that followed.  Avoiding the locked doors, Hamelin entered through the same way he exited: his own window on the upper floor. Even if the manor was peaceful, the main doors were still barred during the night, after all.

Before, he would have scaled back up using a laborious path up a wooden shed to the tiled roof, then treading softly across to drop down into his own room. Now, he simply grabbed the ledges and cracks in between bricks, and used the strength of his fingers to ascend.

Once inside, he opened the door to his room, which he always kept generously oiled, so as to avoid squeaking, then stepped softly across the wooden floor with carefully calibrated movements. The creaking boards below his feet barely made a sound, as he passed over them like a ghost.

Down on the ground floor, Hamelin found the kitchen abandoned for the night. A latch was all the security the pantry had, which he made short work of. Opening the trap door down to where the foodstuffs were kept in relative cold and dry conditions, Hamelin peered down into the darkness.

Taking food from the pantry was a daring move, but it was the best immediate solution to his problem. He needed food, and here it was ready for him to eat. The fact that the pantry already had issues with critters was what made him dare to take the risk, hoping his crimes would be loped together with the incursion.

Descending feet first, he submerged himself into the delectable smell of sausages and cheese, bread and dried meats. In total darkness, his vision still allowed him to pick up on his targets with only the slightest amount of moonlight. His darkvision had also improved through the transformation.

Grinning, he reached out for a sausage and began stuffing his face and stomach, making sure to erase all evidence of a human perpetrator. His growling stomach called out for more and more sustenance, leading him to lose awareness of his surroundings.

Not before a sharp pain in his finger alerted him, did he realize he was not alone in the pantry. Biting down a raging screech, Hamelin retreated backward, sausage sticking out of his mouth. Eyes darting back and forth, he identified the attacker.

A small white blob in his vision was standing on its hind-legs, teeth bared and snarling. Red eyes shone from within deep recesses like hateful rubies.

Regaining his wits, Hamelin revealed his own teeth, which even in the dark recesses of the pantry reflected what little light dared to venture here. Meeting the ruby gaze, his own yellow eyes ignited, spreading their sickly light.

For a moment they were deadlocked, then the little creature attacked. Surprised at its daring, Hamelin hastily transformed his hands and swiped at the oncoming foe. It avoided, nimbly, then moved so fast to the side that Hamelin lost sight of it.

Whirling around into a crouch, he felt something pass over his head. He struck out in its general direction and managed to land a glancing blow, but not enough to draw blood. The creature landed on the small patch of moonlight that penetrated through the trap door, revealing its true nature.

On the pantry floor, surrounded the ethereal light from above, stood a white ratling, the size of Hamelin’s lower arm.

No… in this place, it is merely a ‘rat’, he decided, seeing none of the telltale intelligence in the white rat’s eyes. Instead, its beady eyes held an instinctual glare of hatred towards the one who had dared intrude into its sacred feasting grounds.

Ratlings were smart, in their own limited way, but this one was merely a rat; still held back by its biology.

Hamelin bared his teeth again, hissing with restraint. Compared to humans, he understood the thinking of a rat much better. It would succumb to him the moment it understood he was its superior.

The white rat responded with a loud hiss of its own, before its body began warping. Out of its back, spikes erupted, and scales grew across its body, covering its hairy pelt with a metallic sheen. Its claws expanded and became vicious-looking talons, ready to rend flesh.

Hamelin opened his eyes wide, taken aback by surprise. Once again, it was something he had never seen before; his own transformation notwithstanding.

Fully aware of the present danger, Hamelin threw himself to the side, coming up against the pantry wall, narrowly avoiding a new charge from his foe. In comparison to its transformation, his own clawed hand looked like a feeble imitation, and he quickly abandoned any attempt at penetrating those silvery scales.

Instead, he raised his hand, just as the rat turned and made a secondary attack. From his palm, the primary strain he had just acquired erupted, enveloping the helpless rat before it could strike.

It tumbled to the ground before him and began writhing in agony. Hamelin used his withermancy senses to observe the disease’s progress through the rats body, seeing how the micro-organism invaded the small creature; taking it over and gradually establishing itself… and a connection.

He felt the rat moments afterward, felt its panic and desperation, as it fought for its breath. Until now, it was exactly like with the mouse in the forest, its heart beating faster and faster as the disease progressed; unlike the mouse, however, the rats heart did not explode.

Instead, it seemed to strengthen, as did much of the rats other functions. In particular, Hamelin noticed a qualitative change to its intelligence and sense of self. From nothingness, a consciousness rose and touched upon his own.

There were no words, only confusion and a growing sense of despair.

Hamelin reached out, tentatively, and stroked the metallic surface of the scaled rat. It shrunk back, its transformation dissipating as quickly as it had appeared. Once again, he reached out and stroked its fur, finding it surprisingly soft to the touch.

There, there, he sent through the mental link connecting the two of them, you’re alright.

Of course, it understood none of his words, but it appeared the sentiment came through. Instead of words, Hamelin tried to send emotions or mental images of calming dark places, deep underground. He showed it his memories of the Under Empire, its vast caverns and majestic burrows and tunnels.

Slowly, it turned its red eyes up towards him, staring at him without newfound intelligence and awe.

Softly stroking it and sending the most calming images towards it, Hamelin smiled to himself. He might be in a world far removed from the glory of the vexen, but who was to say it had to stay that way?