Chapter 18 – A Rat in the Night (3)

Ouren, master of poison, was resentfully picking through the meager harvest this insignificant family had provided him with. Aside from being stuck in this stupid little town, in the middle of arse-end nowhere, he also had to contend with a third-rate supply, a nasty employer without a hint elegance, and bloody peasants everywhere, trying to suck up to him.

Furious at the humiliation he was suffering, Ouren ground both his teeth and the herbs before him with a vengeance. The pestle in his hand hammered down on the innocent herbs, as he released as much stress as he could through violence.

It would harm the final product, but he did not care. The Marn family could go to hell for all he cared, and even with faulty products, the job he was hired to do would be easy. Subvert the competition and make the head of the Marns family into the underground hegemon of this small place, easy peasy.

Ouren had lived a life of luxury before the summons had come. As the scion of a noble household, apprenticed to a great alchemist, Ouren had been set for life. With his abilities, he could have served kings and emperors, instead he was sitting in a dirty attic, helping low-life scum to conquer the underground of an out-of-the-way town.

Who was to blame? The Inverse was. Like everyone else, Ouren had heeded the summons, resentfully, yes, but nonetheless dutifully. He had traveled to World’s End, entered the Inverse, and survived the initiation, as one was supposed to, but then what?

The pestle in his hand slipped, and Ouren hit his own fingers. Growling in frustration, he threw the mortar onto the table and looked at the damaged digit. The juice from the Garvin Grass, which he had been crushing, had already caused a small rash to erupt on his delicate skin.

Cursing his fate to the heavens, Ouren took out a salve and dressed his finger, preventing further damage.

What was left after surviving the horror of the initiation was a pathetic life as a slave, or worse: an ingredient to others. Life over there was terrifying to Ouren, who had fled as soon as he saw the chance to.

Anyone could travel to the Inverse, but few ever managed to come back — at least not lawfully. Ouren had used all his remaining resources to get smuggled back through the gateway, back into the world of light, and present himself to his family once more.

But what did they do? Throw me out again… Me!?

His rage now rising into a tempest, Ouren punched the table and screamed with fury. His own father had looked at him with horror and scorn, throwing him out on the streets with nothing but a warning never to come back.

His own father, who had paid an exorbitant price in order to apprentice him to a renowned alchemist, had wanted nothing to do with him. Without support, Ouren’s only option had been to flee as far away as he could, knowing there would be pursuers not far behind.

This was how he found himself in Tremon, a minor town with no particular features, lowering himself in front of a small crime-lord, just to keep a roof over his head. It was a humiliating experience, one that Ouren would make sure to remember… and to avenge.

Not only would the Marns family feel his wrath, once he had used them for all they were worth, he would plunge this entire town into misery and death. Once his immediate anger had been dealt with, he would turn on the pursuer he had been running from since escaping the Inverse, whoever it was, and make them the object of his vengeance.

What came after that? Perhaps the Inverse itself, Ouren thought to himself, snickering at the thought. That wicked world was not supposed to exist. Ouren would see to it that the gateway was forever closed, once he got powerful enough.

For now, though, he still had poisons to—

With a jerk, Ouren sat up and sniffed the air. Poison!

No, not poison. Something similar, but different. Ouren recognized parts of the invading mixture from the smell alone. This was his poison — his version of Raison poison. How could it be here, changed, and aimed at him?

His deductions took less than a second, and he wasted no time thinking deeper about it. He was inoculated against his own poisons, and even this deviated variant could not penetrate his defenses. He was under attack, and he would retaliate.

Gaining his feet, Ouren extended his senses, looking for the perpetrator. Though magic was not his strongest suit, he had enough to locate nearby lifeforms — a necessary skill in the Inverse. Yet, it appeared that nothing was nearby, except for the minor signature of a rat, which Ouren ignored for now.

He turned around just as a shadow fell down from above, aimed straight at him. Ouren was not one to be taken by surprise, and sidestepped the attack. Kicking the stool he had been sitting on, he delayed the shadow’s follow-up while he prepared his weapons.

At his belt, he drew a small knife, coated with vicious poison from the inside of the scabbard, while he retrieved a gourd from the table and popped the cork, allowing the fumes within to diffuse into the room.

“I don’t know who you are—” The shadow did not even allow him to finish his threat, but attacked as soon as it was able. Vicious claws extended from small hands, it slashed at his chest. From within the shadows of a cowl, Ouren saw two yellow lights glow with wicked delight.

He stepped back from the first slash, then met the second with the knife and threw the concoction in the gourd at the opponent. The fumes alone should slow it down, but the actual poison would kill a large bull in an instant.

The shadow dodged the spray nimbly, twisting around and attacking from the sides instead. Surprised at the agility, Ouren had to take another step back and was forced to call for help. “Assassin!” He shouted, “To me! Assassin!”

Instead of the immediate shuffle of boots, however, all he heard was the continuous laughter from the ground floor. Those imbeciles!

A flash of silver in the darkness. The shadow was grinning at him!

“You fiend!” He roared, and split the air once more with his knife, as the figure dodged, “Don’t you know who I am?”

He extended too far. Unable to draw back in time, he suffered a slash to the arm, causing him to drop the knife. It was planned, though. Paying the price of a hand in a fight was a tactic he had deployed in the Inverse before, but having to use it here was a humiliation.

The enemy, seeing an opening, would rush straight at him, straight into a spray of poison. Ouren laughed as he threw the gourd, looking forward to seeing the shadow dissolve in front of him. He was already planning on how to extract information from the assassin it was dying, when something landed on his neck.

All he heard was a squeak, then a snap. In front of him, the shadow — instead of moving forward, had moved back and to the side, silvery teeth bared in a mocking grin.

“Good work, Wither,” was the last Ouren, master of poison, heard in his mortal life, as his neck bone was snapped in two by powerful teeth.

——

Hamelin watched the poison master fall into the poison liquid he himself had spilled all over the floor. Some of it had landed on Hamelin’s cloak, which had become holed, but none of it had managed to hurt him.

Atop the dead man, Wither stood proudly, having done the final deed. Hamelin had been certain that the man would have some trick, and when he used it, Hamelin would have to avoid it at all cost. However, that would also be the best time to attack. As such, using himself as bait, and Wither for the killing stroke, had been the best plan.

Looking around the room, he saw a lot of items he wanted for himself, but he had limited carrying capacity. He rummaged through the poison master’s robes and found a few items of interest, especially a strange black card, nesting in the man’s inner pocket.

Not knowing what it was, Hamelin tilted his head and looked at it. It was covered in silvery symbols, none of which he understood. Seeing the man kept it so close to his person, Hamelin decided it had to be worth something and took it.

Aside from that, he picked out the most potent herbs and poisons already concocted, as well a pouch of coins. Money was always useful, after all.

Having finished raiding the room, Hamelin turned to the poison master’s corpse for one final task he had to perform.