A scream woke him up. Arden Marn, head of the Marn family, was out of bed and onto his feet in the blink of an eye, a knife in his hands, ready to attack or defend.
“What is it, Corey?” He said to his wife, whose scream he had recognized. However, instead of defending against an unknown enemy, his wife merely stood starting at the end of their bed, eyes and jaw wide open and quivering.
Seeing her so terrified, Arden followed her line of sight, down to the end of their bed.
“Gods above,” he mumbled, seeing the gruesome sight for himself. Stuck onto the post of their bed, a veiled head hung with blood pouring down the sides. A piece of parchment obscured the features of the head, held there by the powerful thrust of a knife, pierced through the forehead.
Approaching with trepidation, Arden was pretty sure he knew who the head belonged to, and yet he had to confirm it. With shaking fingers, he reached out and grabbed the parchment, ripping it off the knife to reveal the identity hidden beneath.
Indeed, it was as he feared. The poison master, Ouren, who had just begun his vital work for the family, and on whom Arden had gambled the fortunes of his family, looked back at him with a vacant stare.
With his death, the Marns family was finished as well. Still shaking, Arden turned the parchment, staring down a message written in the blood of the deceased.
To master Arden Marns,
With this, your life is mine.
“Who the hells is Halifax?” Arden mumbled, still looking the letter over, oblivious to his surroundings.
“Indeed, who might it be?” Said a voice just beside his ear. Jolting, Arden moved to the side and struck out with his knife. The blow was effortlessly stopped by a small wooden stick. The hand holding the stick belonged to a strange man, dressed in misfitting clothes in the brightest of colors; greens and reds, yellow and blue, all stuck together in the most mismatched way.
His wife, still staring blankly into space, screamed again.
“—am I?” The man finished, smiling, “No concern of yours, Mr. Marn, not anymore. Had this dear fellow stayed in your employ, though… But he is no more, and so you are no longer a person of interest. Be glad.”
The man leaned forward and snapped the letter from Arden’s hand. “I followed this Halifax here to see what he was planning, and indeed he does not disappoint, does he? To conquer a family in one night is no mean feat; I trust you have no intention of refusing his claim, no?”
“I-I don’t… What?”
“This letter, do you not see?” The man thrust the letter into Arden’s face, as if that somehow would make it more intelligible, “You have been claimed, Mr. Marn, by someone you would probably do well not to offend. Well, that’s my advice at least. Consider yourself twice warned.”
With those words, the man turned and walked straight out the window of the bedroom, which was situated on the first floor. Following him, Arden looked out the window to find the man had utterly vanished. He even looked up the roof, expecting to see him having gone that way, but there was nothing.
“What does this mean?” His wife, Corey, asked, stepping up beside him and looking out.
“I think…” Arden said, chewing on his own lip, “We’ve got a master, now.”
With the night’s escapades done with, Hamelin went to bed quite satisfied with his own work. Tracking down the house of Arden Marns had been a simple task, and the snoring master of the house had made it easy to enter and leave his letter.
Of course, he did not expect the man to cave after this first visit; Hamelin expected him to cave once he realized he had been infected with his collar. With that as a security, Hamelin had taken his first step in controlling the local underground, which in time would allow him to procure the materials he needed. He was patient, though, and wanted to see how the situation developed during the day.
He returned home to the manor and managed a few hours of sleep, before he was woken up in the morning by the abominable cries of the cockerel. Going down to the kitchen, he once more found the cook cursing the critters in the cellar. He thought he had rid the cellar of rats after taking Wither out of it, but it appeared there might be more still.
Deciding to leave it be, Hamelin ate his food in peace and quiet. Once he finished, he went about looking for a place in the shade to take a nap, where he would not be discovered. He managed to stay out of manor business for the entire day, and only appeared in front of his family when the obligatory evening dinner arrived.
As always, he was like a shadow in the company of the others, especially seated next to his brothers. Thus, he was surprised to hear his mother speak about him.
“Mage Correl,” she said, hesitantly, “I know you have tested my poor Hamelin, but might there be something that can be done about him? I feel terrible leaving him as he is, the poor boy.”
The dinner party went silent, as all eyes focused in on Hamelin for the first time in a long while. Playing his part, Hamelin hunched his shoulders and crumbled in on himself, wishing the attention to pass as swiftly as it had arrived.
“I’m sorry, lady Whitter, I truly am,” said the mage, with little to no audible regret in his voice, “But the boy is magically invalid. What I’ve observed of his behavior outside of the few times he’s been in the study has not uplifted my hopes.”
“He’s an idiot,” Heston said, smacking his lips, “Don’t bother with him, Mother.”
“Heston!” Lady Whitter stared daggers at her second son, who initially drew back, but soon straightened and faced his mother squarely.
“It’s the truth, and you know it,” he said, then shrugged, “Not saying it won’t make it less true.
“It’s still not appropriate to speak of in such a manner,” Wayne said, looking at his brother with furrowed brows, “No matter what, he is still our brother.”
“Yours, perhaps,” Heston sniffed and deigned to look Hamelin’s way, “That weakling is no brother of mine.”
“Heston!” This time it was lord Whitter who spoke, smacking his fist down on the table to underscore his point. In the face of this force, Heston drew back and did not dare to straighten again. Hamelin had never seen his father act in his defense. In truth, he had thought the man would rather agree with his idiot older brother.
“Hamelin may not be like the rest of you,” said lord Whitter, face as serious as a rock, “But there’s a place for every man under the sky. It is our duty to unearth the place in which he belongs, just as we have done for each of you.”
Unearth it? How, when you have barely spoken to me? Hamelin snickered on the inside, although he felt a strange tension in his stomach. Were his human emotions getting the better of him? Surely not.
“Yes, Father,” Heston replied, looking down at the table.
“If I may…” Mage Correl said, hesitantly enough that Hamelin was certain the man was faking it. Lord Whitter nodded graciously to his guest, who went on, “There might be a place for young Hamelin, if you’re not afraid of forcing a bit of discomfort on him.”
“Oh go on, mage Correl, please tell me!” His mother leaned forward, hope gleaming in her eyes.
“Well… it’s not a very nice place, but I must provide what council I can, you understand,” the mage said, hedging a little for effect. Hamelin could see the man’s eagerness to speak, and the restraint it took to keep the family in suspense.
“Please, mage Correl. Any advice you have to give will be greatly appreciated,” said Lord Whitter, leaning in as well.
“As you wish, My Lord,” The old man said, hiding a smile behind a napkin, “As a nobleman, you can offer your child to the Inverse, in return for certain… benefits from the kingdom. Although it may seem harsh, it is often the case that those who do not belong on this side, thrive on the other.”