Chapter 9 – The Threat Underneath (2)

Succumbing to the disease had exhausted the white rat. Hamelin scooped it up from the pantry, cleaning up as best he could, and snuck back up to his room. Back in relative safety, he began inspecting the changes to the little creature.

It was clear to him now, that the primary strain he had acquired was not a simple one. It had infected the rat and imprinted on it, making it subject to Hamelin’s will, but that was far from all it had done.

The rat before the infection had had no real sense of self, or any notion of consciousness, but after being infected with Hamelin’s primary strain, its intelligence had leaped upwards, to the level of a toddler, at the very least.

This meant the disease was not just a one-way slave collar, but something akin to an equivalent exchange. On the one hand, the rat had been subjugated and its freedom restrained, on the other hand, it had gained intelligence and self-awareness.

It’s like a forbidden fruit, Hamelin mused to himself, looking down at the creature now resting on his lap, Eat it and gain the power of choice, but lose your innocence in the process.

What had happened to the mouse, back in the forest, indicated that he could not do this with every living creature, nor would it have any effect on plants. He would have to experiment to see if it would work on humans, but he highly doubted it.

Maybe in the future, once I’ve enhanced its potency…

The possibility was intoxicating. Hamelin had to put a hand over his face, in order to hide the wicked smile now dominating it. If anyone had entered his room at this moment, they would have thought he had gone mad.

Such a potent strain needed a fitting name. Leash… that’s what I’ll call it, Hamelin thought, feeling that a simple name was best. Although a more lethal primary strain would have more immediate use, with the Leash as his base, Hamelin had a lot more future potential.

Thinking like this, he kept vigil over the exhausted rat, as its body began to acclimate to its new condition. Just before the sun rose, the rat woke up, raising its head and look up at its master. Its new position beneath him in the hierarchy was immediately apparent to it, and it bowed its head.

A mental picture of the white rat exposing its neck followed the actual act, showing its devotion in both mind and body.

Hamelin smiled and stroked it gently, sending it images of acceptance. The rat shook with delight and looked back up at him, its budding self-awareness glowing like a beacon in Hamelin’s mind.

“I’ll call you Wither,” Hamelin said, speaking through both his mind and mouth, “As you will be the first disciple of the greatest withermancer there ever was.”

Wither bowed its head once more, not fully understanding the concept of a ‘name’, but it was aware of the importance of the moment from the mental images Hamelin sent.

“Now,” Hamelin said, sighing, “I just have to find a way to keep you secret from everyone else.”

There was no way his parents would accept him taking a rat for a pet. His mother had grown despondent with him, after he allowed her to gain the impression that he was an idiot. Hamelin’s father almost never spoke to him, focusing instead on the genius, older brothers, Wayne in particular, as he was to inherit.

In fact, Hamelin was mostly ignored by everyone in the manor, and was allowed to nap away the dreadful day on most occasions. The maids still came by to clean his room, though, so hiding Wither here was not an option.

Standing up on his bed, Hamelin could just about reach the ceiling, where a loose board led up to a small space just beneath the roof. He placed Wither in that space, instructing the rat to stay quiet and rest up.

Wither appeared unwilling to part with him, but with a stern mental message, Hamelin got it to stay put for the time being. With that issue settled, he stepped out of his room and down into the kitchen for his breakfast.

He found the cook coming out of the trap door to the pantry, cursing to high heaven.

“Blasted, bleedin’, hells, I told ‘em we needed some wards down there. Got a big and mighty mage in the house, but can he be bleedin’ bothered to lay down a bit of protection against critters in our foodstores…?”

The man trailed off when he discovered Hamelin standing in the doorway, observing with his curious yellow eyes and head tilted to the side.

“Erhm… hello, lord Hamelin, will you be having your breakfast, then?”

“Yes, I would. What was that about the pantry?”

“Ahh… nothing important, Milord, just a bit of housekeeping. Nothing important.”

Hamelin smiled as gently as a five-year-old could, then accepted the plate which the cook offered him and sat down on the nearest bench. Had he been any of the older brothers, this would have been unseemly — to dine in the presence of servants — but Hamelin much preferred to eat his food where he would not be disturbed by his neurotic mother or lectured by his stern father.

Much better to just eat as fast as possible and find a dark corner to sleep in.

When he was nearly done with his meal, a young voice called through the open door to the outside, “Hey Hans, need anything from the town? We’re leaving for market day.”

The young  man who entered was one of the workers who served as either porters or farmhands. He walked briskly, greeting the moody cook with a wave, when he suddenly stopped in his tracks.

“L-Lord Hamelin…” The man stammered, looking from the cook, who just shrugged, and back to the youngest lord of the manor.

The servants had an ambiguous relationship with Hamelin. On the one hand, he was the son of their lord and employer, but on the other, he was well-known as the family’s black sheep. Being the idiot of the family, the servants still had to show due deference.

Only, servants were keen when it came to their superiors. Whereas the family denoted Hamelin as an idiot, the servants recognized that there was something ‘off’ about the youngest lord. While they could not put a finger on it, they all felt uncomfortable around him.

Hamelin swallowed his breakfast and said, “Are you going to market in Tremon?”

“Yes, Milord, that’s right,” the young man said, nodding.

Shoveling the rest of the food into his mouth, with none of a noble’s dignity, Hameling stood up and walked outside, using his sleeve to wipe away the leftover food from his face. He passed by the stunned young man, who took another bewildered look at the cook.

The cook shrugged again. As the young man left, following after Hamelin, the cook shouted, “See if there’s anyone who can do some damn pest control in town!”

Hamelin ignored the shout and walked towards the front of the manor, where two carts with foodstuffs were ready to be send off to market. By the carts stood his father, lord Sebastian Whitter, along with the eldest son, Wayne.

As Hamelin approached with a skip in his step, the two of them turned away from their discussion with the coachman and looked at the youngest.

“Yes, Hamelin? What is it?” His father said, his tone neither demanding or placating. Instead is was perfectly indifferent, as if Lord Whitter had no expectations of Hamelin at all.

Stopping in front of them, Hamelin put his hands in his pockets and gave them a dumb grin, saying, “I wanna come too, Father.”

Lord Whitter furrowed his brow and looked to Wayne. The oldest brother shrugged and shook his head. “I didn’t tell him, Father.”

Seeing the young porter who came running after Hamelin, Lord Whitter knew who had spilled the beans. While he gave the young servant a stern staredown, enough to make the young man visibly shrink, he turned his words on Hamelin.

“Going to market is serious business, Hamelin. We can’t look out for you, as well as our wares.”

Hamelin tilted his head, making his stare go vacant. He looked from one to the other with a finger on his lower lip, which slowly began to quiver. Using his bodily control, he forced tears out through his eyes, perfecting the image.

“Father, if it’s just bringing him along, I’m sure it won’t be a bother,” Wayne blurted, seeing the signs of a tantrum on the way, “Besides, it will be a good experience for him.”

Lord Whitter sighed and patted Wayne on the shoulder. “If you say so. He will be your responsibility, then.”

Wayne nodded, and Hamelin did not miss the annoyed twitch of his mouth. Smiling to himself, Hamelin threw his hands up in the air, triumphantly, and gave his oldest brother a hug, by clinging to his leg.

“Gods dammit,” he heard Wayne mutter beneath his breath. Hamelin snickered.