I watched the whole scene take place before my eyes. I hid out of the way, avoiding attention. Hitch had called Hacku ‘royal’, and he hadn’t liked it one bit. Why was that? Now Hitch was brutally shoving Hacku out of the room. I knew that he’d take him straight to the interrogation arena, but there was no interrogation taking place today. The look in Hacku’s eyes as he was stripped of weapons was pitiful. It was a look devoid of hope. I could tell how much he hated beatings, and this could possibly be the worst battering he’d ever take. Hitch was absolutely furious. But most of all, he was upset, and that was worse than any anger. I followed Hitch and the Commander to the interrogation arena and watched while Hitch made Hacku get down on his knees near the chain-loop in the centre of the raised platform. Ayanami was guided in by two highly talented men who did have a bit of magic on their side, and made to sit on one of the seats surrounding the platform. He was behaving well, but he looked bored, which could cause him to do something. Hitch brutally chained Hacku there and then, with carefully controlled fury managed to walk away without battering him there and then. He walked past us and said as he passed, “I’m not leaving Bess there to turn cold. I have my priorities straight and Bess is at the top of my list, sir.”
She looked peaceful. Beautiful, laid on her bed. It was as if she wasn’t dead. Sergeant Hitch was silently crying, tears rolling down his cheeks unkempt. For some reason, I had no tears to shed. Hitch gathered himself up and muttered some prayer to the Gods, then he turned to Commander Trent. Are you ready? His eyes said. Trent nodded silently.
When we went back to the interrogation arena, Hacku didn’t seem to have moved at all. It was 7 hours. The guards on duty there with spears looked to us when we entered. One came over to Trent, “He hasn’t moved at all. Literally.” He said nervously, shifting his gaze to the almost angelic-looking Vincent knelt on the platform, looking at the floor. Hitch seemed to have readopted his anger and fury, for he growled under his breath and strode up the stairs to Hacku. He stopped abruptly. Hacku’s gaze didn’t even falter. I think that his passiveness pissed the Sergeant right off, for he savagely kicked Hacku in the face and watched with satisfaction as he fell over sideways and spat out a couple of teeth with a great globule of blood. Hacku was in agony but he didn’t care. Didn’t block any of the Sergeant’s relentless attacks. The worst thing was that Hacku knew he couldn’t be beaten to death as a semper, and yet he still let this monster to it. In a period of seconds Hacku was flat out on the floor and his instincts began to kick in. He feebly tried to drag his broken body away from the onslaught, leaving a scuffed trail of blood, but he reached the boundary of his bonds, and could escape no further.
I looked across to Ayanami. Even that sadistic bastard had averted his eyes unhappily. He looked ill. As the beating continued Hitch seemed to become bored of steel capped boots and fists. He sent one of the men from his unit to bring a light weight blunt cudgel and a horse whip. In the meantime he used his dagger to remove Hacku’s already blood-stained jacket. I’d heard about how a semper’s body could heal itself, but I’d also heard about how if the body was placed under constant stress the body could not utilise its abilities and the injuries therefore built up until the body reached its stress limit. When this happened in the case of a normal human they would die. When this happened with a semper, their mental stability changed dramatically and the mind would function differently, which was different in the case of the individual. Hacku’s body under that jacket was almost completely black and blue. Blood trickled down his bare chest and back where his skin had yielded to Hitch’s brutality and pooled on the floor. Hitch tossed the jacket to the side and then waited for the soldier, giving himself a rest. Hacku forced himself back up to his knees from his position on the floor. He was shaking with the effort, and I could see his state of mind was shifting in his eyes. He should be dead now. He cringed suddenly at some pain that passed through him and he folded over his stomach. A convulsion passed through his body as he tried to stifle a cough, but the violence of it caused it to escape anyway and a crimson shower sprayed from his mouth, spattering the floor. He then coughed freely, a huge amount of blood, only to gag and actually throw up more blood. I watched in horror. Sempers aren’t supposed to be able to throw up- they didn’t eat. That meant his stomach was bleeding internally. Seeing what he had managed to do, his eyes widened and he dragged himself back from the mess as far as he could, panting. Hitch wasn’t concerned. He retrieved his new instruments from the soldier and returned to Hacku.
The world was blurred. I couldn’t see. Blow after blow came and my life went ever darker. I deserved it. I killed her. Just like I’d killed Lord Reignold and Keira and so many others before them. My mind wasn’t working properly. That meant I’d gone into extreme stress I guessed. It had only happened once before and that time... I don’t know. Everything was fuzzy. A sharp sting went up my back accompanied by an ear-piercing smack that caused me to jump suddenly. I shook my head to clear my vision and swung around to look up at Hitch who was brandishing a horse whip. Oh.
“Why don’t you fight back, you selfish murderer?” Hitch screamed passionately into Hacku’s face. Hacku didn’t even seem to understand what was going on around him. His eyes focused out, then fixed on Hitch inches from his face. He went cross-eyed then looked through him again. Hitch beat Hacku a few more times then grabbed him by the hair, forcing him to sit up. “You’re a pathetic human being.” He said almost defeatedly into Hacku’s dead eyes. “Pathetic.” He repeated.
Suddenly, Hacku seemed to surface into marginal sanity for a moment. His eyes were clear and sad as he spread his hands helplessly and spoke for the first time in the marathon beating, “Anything remotely human within my soul has abandoned me.” He said softly, then slipped into the abyss again.
Everyone was stunned into silence.
I went back to my room, sickened before the end of Hacku’s beating. Ayanami was still in there with the guards. I went to my room and laid on my bed. It was late, and before I knew it I was asleep, dreaming nightmares of Hacku’s world and life.
The next morning I awoke feeling no better than I had before sleeping. I had developed a bad habit of drinking in mornings, no thanks to the flask of brandy no-one other than Commander Trent gave me for my 17th, and so I had a good long draught before going down to the prison to check on Ayanami and Hacku. The prison had improved since we took it over from Ayanami, but down in the bowels of the prison building it wasn’t so clean. This was where Hacku had spent most of his early life with Ayanami, and I had spent some time myself. It was dark except for four torches lighting the room slightly, casting a red-yellow glow on the barred walls and damp stonework. In the first cell opposite the corridor was Ayanami, chained by a metal collar and shackles on his wrists. He was sat in the corner glaring across at me, his eye black pits and a beaten face.
He coughed, and then said grungily, “Why do you always thin my blood? It isn’t fair.” Apparently, the drug he’d been administered to thin his blood and make him easier to beat made him delirious too.
Behind me, I heard Hacku coughing, a great hacking cough that made me worried he was going to cough his own guts up. Hacku was lying on his side on the floor in the cell opposite Ayanami, having obviously given up long ago. He’d come back into sanity, for when he saw me he forced himself to sit up, though he slumped over forwards and still grimaced with the pain it caused. He opened his mouth to speak and then instead waved his hand in a ‘hi’.
“I... You... Look. I’m so sorry. You killed Lady Bess. I can’t help you.” I stuttered, forcing myself to see him as a killer rather than an old master at arms.
“I know,” Hacku squeaked through a dry throat. “Can I... can I ask you one thing?”
“Make them give me a quick death.”
“I’ll do what I can. I will, but I can’t promise anything. You’re a serial killer of peasants, of lords, of ladies, and of kings. The trial will be harsh.”
The next day, guards came for me in my cell and dragged me to my feet. They were dressed ceremoniously, wearing gold engraved armour with violet plumed helmets and sapphires studding the Hacku sigil of a plain broadsword. I’d had it that way to show my like for simplicity and the fact that my life was devoted to the way of the sword. Lady Bess Reignold had decided to try and honour me with my own guards, instead, it brought stab of pain to my heart. Out of respect to my own soldiers, I walked between the two guards at my sides and three infront and behind without being difficult across my old fortress and to the meeting hall.
Inside, everyone was already seated. When I entered all heads turned to me, and I hung my head in embarrassment and depression at seeing so many familiar faces. At the head of the hall, the panel of judges was made up of the Five Hands of Justice- the most famous and supposedly fair judges known, the High Judge Heiraki, and his majesty the King.
The witnesses and evidence-givers were many, but included Chancellor Durzo, Bess, Jay, Hitch, the king’s right-hand man, and astonishingly, Ayanami. Ayanami looked totally defeated like I had never seen him before. He sat between two guards, in chains, shirtless, shivering, and his head lolling forwards onto his chest at times.
I was pushed forwards down the central aisle past old friends, enemies and accomplices, to a desk in front of the judging panel. There, I was chained to the floor, and seated between two of my old guards who kept their hands on their swords at all times. Then, the formal speeches of swearing to speak the truth took place. As Durzo spoke it, his eyes glittered with sorrow, but I knew he would hold no details back. He would delve deep into my painful past and feed it to all these people. My heart sank and I looked at the floor to avoid my eyes betraying myself. When it came to Ayanami, he forced himself to sit up tall, and he spoke it quickly before sagging back forwards against the table, coughing and shaking. I think it was only I who saw the guards threaten Ayanami with a syringe to the spine to make him speak the words.
“Late General Vincent Frau Hacku, is this you?” Heiraki said regally.
“It is, Your Honour,” I replied softly, still looking at the floor.
“You have been brought here today to face trial for the supposedly numerous atrocities you have committed over your life time of 769 years as a semper, three of those years spent working with Late General Master Fritz Ayanami....”
“For. Working for. I had no choice.” I cut in, devastated.
“Working with Late General Master Fritz Ayanami.....”
“Your Honour! I.... you....” I stopped, suddenly too tired to say anything about my slave status, and sank back into my seat without paying attention to the two knives at my chest.
“...as a slave, against your will,” the judge finished. “I have a list here of your crimes. The list is somewhat extensive but I must read it out. Genocide. Assassination. Murder. Man slaughter. Theft. Taking drugs. Refusing to act accordingly as a slave. Avoiding duties as a member of a royal family...” The list went on, until I had to bury my face in my hands. “Vincent Frau Hacku, what say you to these accusations?”
“To which crime do you refer?”
“All of them. Fucking every single one. Put me in front of a firing squad and get it over with,” I said bitterly. “I know about your murder squad who carry the rarest gun weaponry on the planet, remember? I used to work with them.”
“We wish to carry out a fair trial to find the truth of your past, Hacku.”
I stood abruptly, my eyes flashing murder, and surged forwards before the two guards could stop me, hopping over the oak table I had been sat at. I forgot entirely about the chains holding me back and ended up stood with my hands chained behind me under the table, and my body on the other side where I was completely unable to defend myself against anyone and anything. In defence, the king’s guards had stood and drawn concealed rifles, and were now pointing them at my head.
“Fucking do it!” I yelled at them, trying to free myself from the chains that bound me back against the table that dug painfully into my lower back. “Shoot me you bastards!”
The king stood without a word and came around his table. He came right up to my face and looked me right in the eye. He had been my friend once, King Davin, but times had moved on. I felt terrible doing it, but I wanted to provoke something, so I fell silent, and spat right into his face.
The whole room gasped, and the guns were double-loaded.
The king closed his eyes, and wiped my bloodied spittle from his face. He looked me back in the eye flatly, and open-handedly struck me across the cheek. The numerous rings on his fingers scraped and cut my cheek, and my head snapped sideways. Blood ran down my throbbing cheek. I didn’t bother righting myself. I didn’t care. I stayed slumped sideways against my desk and refused to look King Davin in the eye again.
He grabbed me by the chin and forced me to at him. The silence in the trial room became stifling. “Is death what you choose?” he said clearly.
“Yes, my liege.” I replied, trembling and looking at the floor.
“It is what you wish for?”
“More than anything.”
The king looked down on me, frowning. He sighed. “Then you shall not die. Continue with the trial, but Hacku will not be facing the Squad.” The world came crashing down around me, and the outcry that followed became merely a background whisper beneath the roaring in my ears. I couldn’t speak, not even when Davin unchained me and gently led me back to my seat. He left me unchained.
“No...” I whispered inaudibly into my hands. “No. I can’t live. I... I’ll...”
“You won’t be doing anything, Vince. You work for General Kai now. He’s taking over from Ayanami, and a good, strong man. He’s a semper, too, of 122 years...”
“Pah. Nothing,” I interrupted furiously.
“General Kai, stand if you will.” King Davin ordered into the crowd. The room fell quiet and all heads turned to the back of the room to seek the general who would be my master. A man who had been sat in the back corner stood, and came forwards, his boot heels clicking on the cold stone floor. By the looks of things, he became a semper at about 30. Yet again I looked young and incompetent. He had a light smattering of course black stubble on his chin and his lower-back length raven black hair was bound back in a loose ponytail by a gold band. He had a very handsome, rugged look about him, and his soft brown eyes enhanced this. He wore a white shirt with his emblem embroidered on the shoulder tabs tucked into dark red breeches and brown knee-boots. Around his waist was a brown leather belt from which hung a gold-hilted sword of an honoured military figure, much like mine. To my surprise, he also had twin flintlock pistols in holsters on his lower back. Hmmph. Foreign royalty, no doubt. His shirt was mainly unbuttoned and his sleeves rolled up to his elbows which showed off his extensive symbolic Chivvian tattooing that covered the whole of his chest, arms and hands. Around his wrist he wore the popular Chivvian symbol of the dragon wrought in brass, hanging from a brown leather thong. His nails were painted black.
He came to the front of the room and silently bowed to King Davin. Then he turned to me. I stayed seated and did not bother bowing to the man. He continued to look down on me and finally said, ‘Stand, Hacku,” in the cold disconnected voice of a command. I stood and squared up to him without saying a word, testing his authority. Not breaking eye contact with General Kai, I said to Davin, “This is the best you can get?”
Kai pushed himself closer against me and growled quietly. “I am the best he’s ever had,” he said.
I put my hand against his chest and pushed him back violently. He didn’t even stagger. “You forget who you’re talking to, motherfucker,” I hissed, my pride wounded.
“I never forget, Captain Hacku.”
“King Davin, my liege, with all due respect, I do not feel this Kai is fit to be a leader of men. Generals are not--”
“May I interject, General Hacku, and say that this is coming from an alcoholic genocidal maniac?”
“Fucking royal scum!” I spat, unsure what to say. He was entirely right.
“Don’t forget your royal lineage, Prince Correalii.” He said with an entirely straight face. A collective gasp spread throughout the entire room. Yes, the legendary prince who murdered his entire people. Well done everyone.
I stopped and cringed. Oh, the power in the naming of names. I sat down and looked up at Davin who was stood infront of me and to my right. “Well, I suppose I’m doomed to a life of misery, Dav,” I said, using his old nickname. “How long do you think you’ll be able to keep me out of trouble this time?”
“For as long as I can keep you alive, I hope. And just to let you know, all your monetary reserves now belong to the royal treasury so you won’t go spending them.... on your demise. You’re far too good an asset for us to lose.”
“You’re not considering me. After over 350 years of service to your goddamn kingdom. Not that you’d know. You’ve only been on the throne for forty or so, right? I have served your ancestors for almost half my life. And this is the thanks I get. I’m old, my liege. So old. Why do you insist on doing this to me? Forcing me to live. I sickened of life long ago. I.... surely you can’t deny me something that I’ve been denied for 700 years? I have a right to die, and after everything- every shitty thing I’ve been through, I want to go. Please.” I begged passionately, exhausted.
King Davin looked down at me dispassionately, and then turned away to return to his seat. “I can’t bear this man any more. Judge Heiraki, do you agree to my decision of keeping Hacku on? I feel he will prove useful in times of need- we all now know about his powers since his…. past and discrepancies…. and I think he will prove an adequate challenge to General Kai, and in some respects a teacher, if he is willing to accept his subordinate’s advice.”
Heiraku said, “I do agree very strongly. Decision accepted.”
“Then leave. General Kai, you are free to take control of these premises, Vincent Frau Hacku, his possessions, and carry on as the Lord and Keeper of this realm.” The King said, standing and making the customary speech with a few bits added in.
“My liege.” Kai said, bowing deeply in a long sweep and then turning to me, his crystalline eyes fixing on me. “Let’s go, Captain.”
I stood and limped down the central aisle behind my master, my body still broken from the numerous beatings of late. Outside in the courtyard a mixture of mine, Ayanami’s, and now a smattering of Kai’s soldiers got on with their daily business about the fortress grimly in the heavy rain that pounded the keep. At the centre of the main yard Kai stopped and spoke with one of my ex-soldiers. A lieutenant now, by the looks of things. He deserved it.
“Lieutenant, I think you know this man. He’s to stay in the main bunker with the other men, bunk 1370. Take him to his bunk. His uniform is there. Captain I want you to come to my office for briefing as soon as you’re acquainted.”
“Sir,” I said with a casual salute.
The walk to the bunker was tense, walking with an ex-subordinate who used to look up to you as a general and leader. The bunkers were busy at this time and crowded with men playing cards, sleeping, reading, looking after weaponry etc. I’d spent a lot of time with my men in these bunkers during peace times. It was weird to be back as a low-ranking soldier myself. All heads turned to me as I entered. Primarily my men, I saw, with about 40% Ayanami’s and a few of Kai’s Chivvians. I bowed my head and tried to avoid eye contact with anyone. My guide led me to my bunk and left me there without another word. I suddenly became self-conscious as it slowly dawned on me that in order to change out of my old, tattered and stained clothes and into my uniform I would have to strip down in front of everyone. I removed my old shirt and looked at my dirty, thin, bruised, scarred, branded and blood stained body. I took my uniform and headed to the baths.
I knocked on the door of my old office, dressed in my captain’s black breeches, boots, and jacket. It felt strange to not be wearing gloves or a knee-length coat, like the one hung up by my bed for a cold day’s work. Kai answered the door and stood aside to let me pass, then silently gestured to the familiar chairs at his desk. “Take a seat,” he offered casually as he took his own opposite.
“Thankyou, sir,” I said, ducking my head to avoid any painful fallouts, perhaps involving his fists or a blade.
“Now, Vincent,” he said conversationally, using my chosen name rather than birth. I settled a little. “I know you don’t want to be here and your first impressions of me are less than good, but I want you to understand now that I am not going to be a violent man unless you force me to. I’ve heard every detail of what you’ve been through at Ayanami’s trial. At his hands and others. It’s a lot, and I am very aware that you probably think I’m liable to beat you at a moment’s notice, but I’m not. I will never use physical violence against my own men. I know this is hard for you to comprehend, but every punishment doesn’t need to involve beatings and pain like you’ve been exposed to. I summoned you here to let you know that I’m giving you a new chance at life.”
“May I ask a few questions?”
“What is going to happen to Ayanami?”
“Master Ayanami’s trial finished just before you arrived for yours. He’s being forced to serve as a footsoldier in his father’s army. King Davin decided that that was a worse punishment for such a man- humiliation, rather than death.”
“A bit like mine then.”
“This is pure humiliation and agony for me. After being the general and leader in this fortress for 300 years, being brought down to the level of captain after I had been put through so much by Ayanami- killing my own men, terrorising them- is frightening for me, General. They are going to hurt me. I swear to you.”
“I’m leaving.” I snapped, standing abruptly. I strode to the door and flashed a salute to General Kai, “I’ll be in the barracks should you require me. Sir.”
I sat, shirtless on my top bunk in the bustling soldier’s quarters, looking down on them all with drunken distaste while they glance back warily. The glass scotch bottle in my hand was ¾ empty, and I still wasn’t drunken enough to forget my shitty life. The small allowance I had been given for each month went as far as paying for a good whore and two bottles of brandy weekly. I had been left by General Kai with no assignments for a week to get used to life as a mere captain. I had spent the whole time in the bunker drinking and going out in the middle of the night to the brothels. I knew I made the other men in the bunker uneasy, never sleeping, and pacing in the night. It made me feel superior. A month’s allowance was already gone in a week and I stayed permanently drunk, starting fights with guards and getting into general trouble around town until, by the end of the week, I was forbidden to leave the fortress.
“Are you fucking joking?” I shouted, stood in the centre of the yard as I was confronted by General Kai and two of his soldiers. I had just glassed someone across the head with my empty scotch bottle in a fight about my behaviour in the bunkhouse. “You can’t stop me leaving, Kai. You have no idea what I’m capable of.”
“Oh, I think I do, captain. What you were capable of, at least. You’re magic is gone, friend. Remember that.”
“That was 50 years ago. It’s coming back.” I stared Kai down, but began to doubt myself.
“You keep telling yourself that and pull yourself together.” The young general advised.
“I’m not going to adhere to your command if you don’t take control.” I snapped and turned away, walking for the gates.
He raised his voice to my back and spoke, “I find it so sad, Vincent, that you have reached the point where the only way you can accept control is through violence. Ayanami really messed you up, didn’t he? With you, it’s either be in control, or be forced into submission. I don’t want to force you… I don’t want to be another figure of pain in your life… I’ve never--”
I stopped and turned back to Kai, “You’re young, Kai. You don’t understand how the years have changed me. I’m not going to do what you want unless you take control with me. I know you can’t hurt your men, but I’m not yours, I’m just… here. You want me on your side? Fucking make me. Ayanami and people did more than you can imagine to me…” I shuddered, “…I can handle anything you’ve got. Good luck, kid.”
“Vincent for fuck’s sake don’t make me do this!” General Kai begged.
I still walked.
The sound crackled through the now-silent yard. I froze and looked back to Kai. He was stood with one of his pistols levelled, an entirely lifeless expression on his pale face. The two guards at his side gawped at him with utter shock while I clapped a hand to my mouth and winced as pain ripped through the left side of my lower back and stomach to stop myself crying out.
Kai lowered the gun and looked at the floor, “Guards.” The two men marched forwards obediently and led me by the shoulders to Kai’s office. Half of the fort population watched. I kept silent and focused on not whimpering as each step sent pain up my spine.
In his office I was told to stand in the centre of the floor and strip waist up so he could inspect my wound.
“Straight through, and I missed important organs and arteries. Not that it’d really affect you anyway.” He gave the hole a sharp prod. I staggered sideways in shock and pain. “Still drunk. How much’ve you had?”
“Four scotch bottles… two whiskey and two vodka.” I replied sedately. Suddenly a convulsive cough came over me. I doubled over and coughed and retched into my hand, unable to stop the pain in my back every time I heaved. When I opened my watery eyes, blood reddened my hand. I shrugged and wiped it onto my breeches.
“Vincent… how long has that been happening to you…?” Kai said slowly.
I coughed again and wiped the blood away. “The blood? Oh. Couple years. Since Ayanami made me his slave.”
“I’m getting a medic to check that. Today.”
“It’s nothing. I don’t need a medic. I haven’t needed one since--”
“A medic is checking that,” Kai interjected adamantly. “The gunshot wound won’t need any attention, obviously.”
“I can handle myself.” I tried to tell him, swaying where I stood and retching blood again, staining the years-old rug I was stood on.
“No you can’t. And you most certainly can’t handle your liqueur. Get out, get to your bunker, and stay there until I find the medic.”
“I’m not letting him check me.”
Kai snarled and kicked a chair in frustration, sending it tumbling across the room with a clatter to smash against the opposite wall, at my side. He possessed magic. I flinched back expectantly.
“Ah… I’m sorry. I lost… my temper…” he said as if in a trance, looking at me compassionately.
“Sir…” I replied hesitantly and ducking my head as I went for the door, trying to conceal my panicked rush.