Chapter 12 – Exploitation (1)

Without hesitation, Hamelin began rummaging through the shop’s inventory. There was no way for him to take everything with him, but he took the select pieces that caught his interest, or those he had not seen before.

He also remembered to pick up the Finiger, as it was a powerful poisonous agent with a very corrosive properties. It would be a great addition to his budding stock. He looked around one final time, ensuring himself there was nothing more of use, when he heard footsteps coming from outside.

“Grandpa? You in?”

A knock on the door, followed by the voice of a youth, probably male. Hamelin took a deep breath, confirming with his nose what his ears had told him. The knock came again, a little harder this time. “Grandpa? Open the door, c’mon… don’t scare me!”

Moving back, Hamelin faded into the shadows of the small room. He was confident in his own strength, or at least in his ability to escape, but being cautious in the face of the unknown was rarely a mistake.

“Gods dammit… I’m coming in!” The voice said, after which a brutal kick to the door threw open the latch, opening the portal. Standing in the door was a rather large figure, dressed in ordinary brown clothing, with a cowled half-cloak. Hamelin estimated the young man to be about 16 years old, going by his facial features; freckled, dressed in scattered dirt and very prominent teeth.

“Grandpa!” The young man immediately saw the old man lying on the floor and rushed towards him, turning him onto his back and slapping his cheeks. “What happened to you? Grandpa, can you hear me?”

Observing from the shadows, Hamelin watched as the young man tried to perform a physical check-up on the old man, with surprising skill, checking his pulse, then listened to his breathing, and finally began looking for any signs of hidden wounds. When nothing came of his search, the young man leaned back and breathed a tentative sigh of relief.

However, it was only a show. The young man spun around, flinging a knife straight at Hamelin. Though surprised, Hamelin rolled out of hiding without being skewered, then got on his feet and jumped. His hands transforming into claws, he launched himself at the young man. Eyes widening, the young man tried to avoid the charge, but it was too late.

Only by meeting Hamelin’s claws with knives of his own, did the young man avoid being skewered. Hamelin’s hands were hardened like steel, and took no damage from the ordinary, iron knives. Stepping in, he marked the young man’s thigh with his claws. The boy’s leg buckled, and he fought to stay on his feet.

Hamelin did not allow it. Ducking beneath a wild swing, he grabbed onto the man’s half-cloak, and used his claws to gain purchase. Like climbing a tree, Hamelin scaled the young man, as he staggered through the room, trying to throw the unwelcome rider off. Finally, he arrived at the young man’s neck, grasping it in a show of force.

“Stop moving, or I’ll rip out your throat,” Hamelin hissed in the young man’s ear, immediately soliciting a response. The boy went stiff, his face markedly whitening.

“W—Who are you?” The boy said, trying to force his voice into obedience.

“I’m the one holding your throat in my hands,” Hamelin said, teeth flashing just within the boy’s peripheral vision, “And I’m also the one who just did your dear grandpa a huge favor, so don’t force me to do something nasty.”

“You did wha’?”

On the floor, the old man moved, groggily coming back to awareness.

“Ask him yourself.”

The old man sat up, very slowly, eyes blinking in failing attempts to focus. “Who’s there…?” He said, one hand grasping his head, “Gods dammit… what did I…”

Once his eyes finally obeyed their purpose, the old man stared at the scene of Hamelin sitting on the back of the young man, claws ready to rip open the passage of breath.

“Asten? Gods, boy, what are you doing here so soon?”

“I was… I was just gonna check how yous were doing…”

The old man looked conflicted. Finally, he lowered his head and said, “Master, can I please ask you to release my foolish apprentice?”

Master, eh? Hamelin grinned to himself, then released Asten with a playful flourish and jumped back onto the ground. Such a change in tone…

“I apologize, Master Halifax, these unworthy eyes were unable to recognize your greatness,” the old man said, baring his neck even further.

Though he was a bit put off by the sudden change in demeanor, Hamelin did not exactly hate it either. “It’s good that you know. How’s your body?”

“In perfect shape, Master. I might even say it feels like I’ve gotten a decade younger.”

“Well then, our deal is finished then. I’ve already taken my payment,” Hamelin said, turning to leave.

“Master, please wait!” The old man called before Hamelin could exit the door. Turning to look over his shoulder, Hamelin looked at the old man.

“If it is not too rude to ask,” the old man said, his voice warping with an undertone of fear, “May I ask how long you’ve stayed in the Inverse?”

Inverse? Hamelin thought, hiding his confusion beneath a sneer. What’s that?

Of course, he could not ask; it would betray his ignorance. If the old man had assumed something about him, he could just run with it, but lying was also a great risk when he did not know what he was lying about.

Instead, with yellow eyes sparkling malice, he said, “I don’t believe that’s any of your business.”

“No, no… of course, you’re right,” the old man agreed, lowering his head once more, “I was merely asking out of curiosity… I was wondering if you would be going back there immediately.”

Narrowing his eyes, Hamelin pondered his options. There was no reason for him to indulge in this conversation, but his instincts told him there was an opportunity here. The old man wanted something specific, and thinking of the medicinal remedies the man might be able to procure, Hamelin thought it worth the effort to investigate.

“I am not planning on going anywhere in the immediate future,” he said, which was, strictly speaking, true. The best lies were the ones told through true statements, after all.

“T-Then, might I ask you for a favor… or you may think of it as a job?”

“You presume to give ‘jobs’ to someone like me?” Hamelin snorted, knowing nothing about what sort of figure the old man thought him to be.

“No! No, never! I just… an opportunity, then,” the old man stammered, thoroughly off balance, exactly the way Hamelin wanted him to be.

“An opportunity? Go on…”

The old man raised his head slightly, a tone of relief visible on his face. Finally daring to gain his feet, the old man gestured towards a table with some chairs in the corner, “Would you like to sit, Master? It might take some time to tell my tale.”

“A tale, is it?” Hamelin bared his teeth, “You better not be wasting my time, old man.”

“I would never… please?”

Shrugging, Hamelin strode over and took a seat, then stared expectantly at the old man. “Asten, please get our guest some tea. From the upper cabinet, please.”

“Grandpa, what’s…?”

“Don’t ask, not now. Go do it!”

The young man looked from his grandpa to Hamelin, then scampered off through a door to a sideroom.

“I hope you realize,” Hamelin said, looking from the opened door and back to the old man, “That I will be able to smell it if you put poison in my tea.”

“Of course, of course,” the old man said, sweat appearing on his forehead, “It’s merely a show of good faith, Master, please accept it.”

“Go on, then. I haven’t got all day.”