The trip to Tremon was uneventful. Hamelin sat in one of the carts and observed the landscape passing by without much interest. He had investigated most of the wilderness around the manor already, but had not had the opportunity to observe a human town yet.
The two carts were led by his brother, sitting beside the coachman on the foremost cart, while three porters had been brought along for unloading the food. No guards were necessary on the short trip, as they were within the reach of the town guard’s patrols.
As they crested a hill, Hamelin got his first look at the town of Tremon, and was positively unimpressed with the whole affair. The town was furnished with a partial palisade —enough to dissuade bandits, but not enough for them to sustain a rebellion against the local baron— behind which an unorderly assembly of houses made a mockery of civilization.
Unable to hide his contempt, Hamelin scoffed when he saw it. Humans liked to profess their ideals of order, but half-assed chaos like this belied their sentiments. He longed for the deep burrows and true chaotic assembly of the Under Empire.
They rolled into the town unchallenged. The guards posted at the town’s entrance merely hailed them with raised hands. They knew the Whitters, and allowed them free passage. Once they entered the town’s common, which had been cleared for market, a clerk from the mayor’s office came by for their market fees.
Tremon did not have the right to charge goods for passing through, hence the relaxed guards at the entrance, but attending the market was a different matter. Wayne paid the amount up front, thanking the clerk for his hard work.
“It’s always a pleasure, Lord Wayne,” the clerk said in a soft monotone, “The mayor has ordered that you receive the utmost care. Let us know if anything troubles you, Milord.”
Hamelin peered over the edge of the cart, and noticed the clerk observing him with a curious gaze. The man turned back to Wayne and smiled one final time, retreating with a bow.
“Prepare the goods,” Wayne ordered the porters and coachmen-turned-porters, “I’ll be looking around for what Father asked for.” He turned to the young porter who had come to the kitchen, earlier, “Which reminds me; did Hans ask for anything?”
The young man blinked, having forgotten everything about the cook’s request. “Oh… Oh, yes, Milord! He asked if we could find someone who could help us clear out the vermin from the pantry.”
Wayne nodded, stroking his chin, “Yes, the pantry… I heard about that. I’ll see what we can find… Anything else?”
“Very good. Keep an eye on Hamelin for me; make sure he stays in the area.”
With that, the oldest Whitter brother was off. The young man stood helplessly, wanting to object but not daring to.
Hamelin grinned and prodded the young man’s leg. “What’s your name?” He asked.
The young man turned and looked at the youngest of the Whitter brothers with both trepidation and annoyance. “I’m Voln, Milord.”
“I see. Well, Voln, make sure you do a good job with all the goods,” Hamelin said, grinning so that his silvery teeth shone in the brightness of day, “I’ll see you later.”
With those words he was gone before Voln ever had a chance to stop him.
Behind him, Hamelin heard the increasingly desperate voice of Voln, which he expertly ignored as he disappeared into the crowd with purpose. It was more than childish fancy that drove him to join the trip to the market; it was a necessity if he wanted to reach the next stage of his withermancy.
To begin with, he needed resources. The common strains of disease that could be found around the manor and farmstead were no longer enough. The town might have some more interesting strains, but even that would only take him so far.
What he really needed was a bio-chemical lab, ready to spew out vile and toxic materials at his command. In time, he might be able to build such a facility, but he was currently, devastatingly, lacking in funds. Lacking the expensive option, he needed the next best thing.
Passing through the shifting crowd, Hamelin turned a corner into a narrow alley and pulled up the cowl of his cloak, obscuring his features. In the next instant, he used his bodily control to break his body apart, then reassembled it into a figure that would allow him to go unnoticed.
The pain, of course, was excruciating. Grinding his teeth, Hamelin swallowed the bile that threatened to emerge from his throat, and took a look at himself through a brass-mirror he had brought.
The warped image of a hideous creature looked back, with an emphasized hunchback and two eyes of markedly different sizes just above a thick potato-shaped nose.
To the vexen, the transforming arts were of little use as camouflage — since they recognized each other by smell, rather than sight — but as a human, Hamelin was happy for the skill. He inspected himself further to ensure there were no flaws in his handiwork, then scuffled back out of the alley with a noticeable limp.
There were a few stray looks in his direction, but as soon as they saw how ugly he was, they averted their eyes. Hamelin grinned, his face twisting into a mockery of an expression.
An ugly appearance could backfire, if one was not careful, as humans could be just as likely to point out the outlier, as they would be to ignore it. Had it been a quiet day, Hamelin would not have chosen this form, but on a bustling market day, everyone was too busy to notice the ugliness passing beneath their noses.
Having never been to Tremon before, Hamelin let his nose guide him. He picked up the tell-tale scent within moments, using his powerful sense of smell. Following it brought him down a side-street from the commons, arriving before a dilapidated store-front with a sign reading, “Apothecary.”
In front of the store, on a narrow porch, an old man sat and rocked on a chair, chewing a long piece of straw. Inside, there were no costumers, and from the old man’s laid-back attitude, he was not expecting any.
“Excuse me,” Hamelin said, adopting a raspy voice. The old man leaned further back and stared into the distance.
“Excuse me,” he repeated, a little more insistent.
The old man swiveled his head towards Hamelin, took one long look at him, then returned to staring out on the horizon.
Thoroughly annoyed at this point, Hamelin stomped up onto the porch and grabbed the old man’s rocking-chair, holding it in place. “Excuse me,” he bit out through gritted teeth, “I am looking for herbs.”
The old man sacrificed another long look at Hamelin, before speaking through one side of his mouth, the other still grasping the straw in his mouth. “Ain’t got any. Now, piss off.”
“You haven’t got any?” Hamelin said sneering so his canines became visible in a flash of silver, “Then how come I can smell Ilk Root coming from inside? Or what about that bundle of Whistle Weed you’ve got packed into the corner?”
Though the plants of this world were different from what he knew, Hamelin had been a master of poison in his previous life. Relying on his sense of smell to identify the properties of different plants, and matching them to the botanical catalog his father kept in the library was child’s play.
The old man offered an entire raised eyebrow as a sign of surprise, then chuckled. “I don’t know what you are, boy’o, but that little trick won’t work on me. Anyone could’ve told you what I carry in my store—”
“Then, what about that trace of Finiger you’ve got lying on the upper floor?”
Finally, Hamelin got the reaction he wanted. However, instead of widened eyes and a raised voice, the reaction was surprisingly subdued. The old man barely moved, but Hamelin nonetheless found his throat threatened by cold steel.
Looking down, he could only just make out the edge of a very slim knife, pressed against his pulsing vein.
“Now, that’s a bit more interesting,” the old man said, his voice halfway between a chuckle and a hiss, “Who would be stupid enough to tell you about that?”
Very slowly, Hamelin raised one hand. The old man warned him with his facial expression, but Hamelin merely showed him his palm while raising it further. While the old man kept a close eye on his open hand, Hamelin brought it to his nose and tapped it lightly, twice.
“No one told me,” he said, grinning, “I could just smell it from here.”
“Right, you’ve got that too. From two horses, if I’m not mistaken.”
The old man narrowed his eyes and drew closer to Hamelin. “Who are you, boy’o?”
“Name’s Halifax,” Hamelin said, glad to be using his old name, “And you should not be so eager to close in on someone unknown.”
A tickle to his ear warned the old man, and he twisted his head only far enough to see the sharp edge of Hamelin’s claws, ready to pierce through the man’s head should he attempt to use his knife.
“I see… Ain’t heard of no Halifax before. You must be new. Should we put away the toys?”
Hamelin agreed, still smiling. Lightly, he removed his claws, shifting his hand back into their human form, effortlessly. The old man reciprocated, and drew back, chewing a little more aggressively on his straw.
“Who told you about me?” The old man said, leaning back in his chair as if nothing had happened.
“No one did,” Hamelin answered, truthfully, “I told you; I can smell your shop from here.”
“Smell the herbs, maybe,” the old man scoffed, “But the Finiger? That thing is wrapped in Hel Tongue in order to mask its scent.”
“Which gave it away,” Hamelin said, nodding sagely, as if he knew what he was talking about. The old man narrowed his eyes and leaned forward, but before he could say something, Hamelin rolled his eyes and said, “Yes, yes, of course you haven’t wrapped it in Hel Tongue, since that would spoil the Finiger; you’ve got it wrapped in Flacks O’ Nine. Happy?”
“Not particularly,” the old man grumbled and leaned back again, “I don’t like surprises. Especially not those from ugly bastards like you. Well? Spit it out: what do you want?”
“I’m looking for poison,” Hamelin said, smiling innocently, “Give me the strongest stuff you’ve got.”