Finally, at three years old, Hamelin managed to slip away from his captors. His body was too weak and slow to escape through any kind of skill; rather, it was the act of sheer coincidence that allowed his freedom.
While Aris, the dutiful nurse, had momentarily let Hamelin out of her sight, a less dutiful servant had left the kitchen door open. Hamelin tip-toed out of the house, and fled as fast as he could towards the stables.
The object of his flight was not escape; not in the long run. He knew he would never survive with his three-year-old human body out in the wild. He needed to grow stronger, but could not risk getting caught using the only sure-fire way he knew to do so.
Rounding a corner, Hamelin just barely escaped the notice of the stable hand, who led one of the manor’s two horses out, probably for exercise. The animal did notice him, though, and with eyes rolling it viciously attempted to reveal Hamelin’s indiscretion.
Quiet down, you stupid four-leg!
The stable hand was too occupied, and Hamelin breathed a sigh of relief. The stables were not the best option for what he had in mind, but it was relatively secluded, and he could hide from prying eyes here. At the moment, this was more important than efficacy.
Unfortunately, he did not find what he was looking for on the inside. Humans were so horribly obsessed with cleanliness. Did they not understand the strength inherent in dirt and muck? Gritting his small teeth, Hamelin looked on the outside to find his mark.
Gathered in a heap and isolated from everything else, the dung from the stables was gathered to stew and ferment on its own. While Hamelin was more out in the open than he wanted to, he needed to grab this precious chance.
Tentatively, he touched the heap with a toe, checking the temperature. It was just right. Smiling, teeth flashing, he pulled off his clothes and jumped in, sinking into the moist texture. Although breathing a sigh of relief, Hamelin knew he could not allow himself to relax too much. He had a job to do.
Willing his mind to focus, ignoring its childish wants, Hamelin began to sense the seeds of disease all around him. Normally, as a ratling, a priest of the Lord of Pestilence would initiate the feeble into the ranks of the vexen through mutagenic transmutation, but as a human, Hamelin was on his own. He was a master of the practice, though, having studied the most intricate mutagens from the Lord of Pestilence, after his ascension to a seat at the council.
The first thing he needed to do was simply allow himself to be infected. The invading micro-organism would attack him from the inside, and using them as a catalyst, Hamelin would force fundamental changes to his body.
The plan was perfect, as long as he could survive — and therein lay the problem.
“My Lady, I’ve found him! I’ve found him!”
Looking over his shoulder, Hamelin made a face. Aris had tracked him down, and soon his mother came flying towards him, hands whirling through the air as if she wanted to throw them at him.
“By the gods… By the gods, Hamelin, what are you doing?!” She grabbed his chubby arm and dragged him out of the heap, risking her own precious clothes in the effort. “Uff, you stink! Aris, get him cleaned and in fresh clothes!”
The maid nodded and bowed, grabbing Hamelin and racing back to the house with him, all the while mumbling about how unnatural it was for a kid to ‘bathe in shit’. She started with cold water, rinsing him to get rid of the remaining stains of much, then brushed him down — all the while Hamelin screamed in protest.
She was merciless. Hamelin felt his own skin flay, as she made sure to clean every inch of his body, until the hot water was ready. Then she threw him in the tub and gave him another scrubbing. Hamelin had never felt so humiliated, and never so disgustingly clean.
Despite Aris’ best efforts, Hamelin had managed to achieve his goal. As soon as he got out of the hot bath, he felt the wooziness as his body was adopting a defensive stance to fight off the invaders. Grinning, he saw Aris’ face darken as she took his temperature with her hand.
Then everything went a little hazy. He tried to keep his mind focused, tried to catch the right timing, but he soon realized that he had miscalculated. As a ratling, he would have had a naturally resilient constitution, which would have allowed him to fight off disease, but as a human he had nowhere near the same level of protection.
Before he knew it, he was covered with pillows and covers, kept warm and dry, while unintelligible voices called out from time to time. Desperately, he attempted to take control of his own immune-response, but none of his withermancy training was kicking in.
He was slowly spiraling towards unconsciousness, when a slow hum alerted him to a change. At first, he thought he might have succeeded, but then he started feeling something burn in his chest, right above his heart.
He recognized the soothing hum, the very same he had felt whenever he had held the gift while using withermancy in his old life. Before, it’d had the effect of accelerating the growth of any disease, allowing him to speed up his mastery of withermancy to a degree that was unheard of.
This was also what he had planned to use the gift for in this body, however, the damage to his body this time around exceeded his expectations and experience. If the gift activated now, surely it would only make him more sick?
Focusing his mind on the sensation of the gift, Hamelin began to feel how the sensation of his body changed. He could concentrate, he could feel, he could control, as long as the soothing hum continued. The gift was different, now that it was a part of him.
This pleased him greatly. If the gift could do more than simply act as an accelerant of disease, perhaps it could make up for his miserable conditions. After a long while, Hamelin was finally able to regain control. He did not have the energy to force the changes he wanted, instead he just focused on recovery, accepting that he had to acclimatize himself first.
“Ahh… I think his fever just broke, Lady Whitter.”
“Oh thank the gods… Will he be alright, Doctor?”
Voices simmered through to his awareness. Even though he was not paying full attention, he still caught on to the gist of the conversation.
“I can’t tell for sure, not yet. I can only say that this kind of thing is never good when it happens to a child this young. There might be some… permanent damage. His mind could have been impacted—”
“I’m sorry, Lady Whitter, I shouldn’t speculate so, but I think you need to be prepared. It’s just a chance, mind you, nothing definitive as of yet. We will know when he wakes up whether he is alright or…”
“Or whether he is an idiot?”