Part 1 is dedicated to Larabee and Muki, for all the help and lengthy discussions.
A special thanks goes to del for betaing the Prologue and this chapter.
Slaves of Fate
Fear had a very unique fragrance that was hard to ignore. It had stung in Cho Hakkai's nose ever since they had entered the tent in which the new slaves for Gyuumao were catalogued, and not even his magic limiter had dampened his superior demon olfactory sense sufficiently to not register the nauseating stink. There was only one odour that was more loathsome than that of fear for Hakkai, and that was the unmistakable stench of blood.
'No,' he sniffed the air and suppressed a shudder. 'The mixture of fear and blood is the most repugnant smell that exists.'
Someone screamed, a high pitched wail for mercy that tore through the background noise and gave Hakkai goose bumps, causing long forgotten images to bubble to the surface like pearls in a champagne bottle. The metal chain that was attached to Hakkai's arm shackles suddenly yanked him out of thoughts and almost out of balance. The source for the rude tug was quickly found - Goku had stopped dead in his tracks, his golden eyes wide with shock at what happened. Behind the kid, Gojyo and Sanzo had stopped as well. But as sudden as the tortured yell had started, it stopped again, followed by an awkward silence amongst the slaves until the SMP ushered them to the next station of the degrading tour and the murmuring resumed.
The term 'Slave Maintenance Personnel', or SMP for short, had been coined by the Service Union a long time ago, who had claimed that calling someone a 'slave driver' would besmirch the hard working people's honour. 'Yeah, right. As if a nicer label changes who they are and what they do. Cho Gonou or Cho Hakkai – slaver driver or SMP… Where's the difference?'
More memories burst on the thin layer that separated Hakkai's conscious self from the abomination that lurked in the shadows of his mind. 'It's just the same as before, isn't it? The PunTag will remain, and I can't bring back the dead. I'm a fool,' his nails dug into his palms, but he managed to keep his smile intact. 'Nothing will change, nothing will ever change.'
"Shit. I thought this was a cataloguing area only." Gojyo had tensed, and Hakkai could tell his friend fought his own unpleasant past. Only Sanzo seemed to be untouched by the situation, his expression as blank as his eyes.
"Silencing," Hakkai said darkly. "You remember silencing, don't you?"
Gojyo paled. "Yes."
"Silencing?" Goku wanted to know, clearly unsettled at the mental image the word procured. "Like in 'slicing the tongue with a knife until the screaming stops'?"
"I thought they didn't do that any more."
"Kid, the technique might be considered uncouth, but it's still in use." Gojyo hissed, not noticing that an SMP had stepped up right behind them. "If not-"
"You're a slave," Hakkai sharply reminded, cutting of Gojyo before the red head's talk could get them into trouble. "Remember your place."
"You better listen to him, half breed," the SMP teasingly poked Gojyo into the back with his baton. "Life will be much easier for you and your friends if you keep your mouth shut."
It was safe to assume that Gojyo almost died of a heart attack that precise moment, but he recovered his wits quickly and indicated a bow. "Yes, Sir. I will keep that in mind."
"Don't get cocky, you little shit," the SMP warned.
"I'm sorry, sir," Gojyo sank to his knees, but his demeanour still held pride. "Please forgive me my insolence."
The SMP gave him a long look, then shook his head. "You're sure something, red head. Too bad that the likes of you never survive long under Master Gyuumao."
"He's Master Kougaiji's property. If there's any damage to him, you'll have to answer to me. Tell that to the others as well, Sho."
"Of course, Dokugakuji-sama. What about these three?"
Dokugakuji shrugged. "The same."
"The young master sure has an interesting taste," the SMP said with a wistful smile. "His father would never have spent money on such individuals."
"Master Kou isn't like his father. But that doesn't mean he makes poor choices when it comes to picking out slaves."
"At least, they've got pretty faces."
"Just for how long, that's the question," the man Kougaiji had called 'Nii' threw in, his voice carrying an ill, sadistic foreboding that made Hakkai want to turn on his heels and run as fast as he could. "It would be such a pity letting them go to waste..."
"You're disgusting, Nii."
"Why, thank you, Dokugakuji-sama."
Next to Hakkai, Goku shuffled from one foot to the other, clearly feeling discomforted, but Hakkai knew that there wasn't much any of them could do at this point. At least, Dokugakuji's words had raised hopes that maybe their lives could turn for the better and the seemingly endless chain of abuse would come to an end.
"Go over to the registry desk to get your numbers," the SMP ordered. "After that, the medical section will have a look at you, and if everything checks out okay, you'll get your new branding."
Gojyo sullenly stared at the thick metal cuff that encircled his left wrist. 'At least, it's not a stupid neck collar like before.'
But that was about the only positive thing he had to say about his branding cuff. Fortunately, real branding had been long abandoned, but the identification tag nevertheless was a wicked device. Of course, additional functionality and shape varied from owner to owner, but there were some things they had all in common. His name and registration number was engraved into it, along with Kougaiji's name and crest. The extra-stuff built into the cuff was designed to kill them if they left the trek, amongst other things that would be explained to them after dinner. 'Instead of dessert.'
But as if it wasn't bad enough that the cuff was a ticking time bomb, Gojyo's function code told the SMPs that he was a love slave. 'Shit. I thought... I really hoped that...' He fought the urge to scream out his misery. 'What did I expect? After all, that Dokugakuji practically begged his Lord to accept me.' Gojyo didn't want to think about what would have happened if Kougaiji had rejected him. 'With Hakkai gone, how long would I have lasted in that hell hole of a Casino?'
At least, Hakkai was no longer part of the entertainment program, but now was labelled 'medic slave', and Goku even had gained himself a 'soldier slave' mark. However, the kid didn't seem to be too happy about his new function, probably because the not-so-great-any-more Sanzo-sama had been declared a 'UC5 slave'.
UC5 was the abbreviation for 'Utility Class 5' and meant that Sanzo would have to do whatever crappy task was demanded of him. Sanzo had also received an UC5-style haircut, model 'easy to maintain', and went through all the other nasty things and examinations a utility slave had to endure. Surprisingly enough, Sanzo's only reaction had been to curl himself up on his sleeping mat as soon as they were put into their room. Seemingly oblivious to the world around him, the human stared off into space with cuffed left arm pressed firmly against his stomach.
'Like a beaten dog that licks its wounds,' Gojyo thought, feeling almost sorry for the man.Almost. 'He deserved to get a taste of what he did to others.'
Konchen had hated Sanzo for his arrogant mannerism, but even more for how the nobleman had walked over the lives of others without thinking twice.
Gojyo shared the sentiment. 'Sanzo made me a slave. How can I not hate him?'
Rumour had it that Sanzo had practically destroyed Konchen's family over a minor crime one of the members had committed. Still, even though Gojyo wanted to see Sanzo pay dearly, he had also seen the whip marks that marred the blond's body, and to break a human's will like that... He shuddered. Sure, Sanzo had been nothing but a pampered insult to the title he bore, and probably done nothing but beg and whine, but those scars-
'No. He deserved it.'
Soft laughter bubbled from the two persons to his left, and Gojyo turned his attention from the silent blond to the not-quite-so-silent dark haired ones. Hakkai sat on his sleeping mat and was teaching Goku how to mend holes in socks. But the task of swinging a delicate needle with nimble fingers rather than whacking his Nyo-I-Bo over people's heads proved to be more difficult than expected. Goku still enjoyed it immensely, and Gojyo could tell that the teen had craved for simple fun.
'And he still keeps checking up on you every few minutes as if you'd disappear when he doesn't watch, Sanzo-sama. Damn you!'
And Hakkai... Hakkai smiled until his eyes smiled, too, leeching off of Goku's excitement and happiness. 'Unbelievable. He really smiles, over a pair of stupid socks and a baka saru, of all things.'
He knew that Hakkai's genuine smiles were rare to begin with, and he hadn't really smiled since the day when they had dragged Gojyo away for 'services' and returned him a whimpering wreck. 'It's only a matter of time before they'll force me into it again.'
What will Hakkai do when they dump Gojyo down on his sleeping mat after a rough 'request'? The PunTag had almost killed Hakkai once before, when he had tried to keep Konchen's SMPs from hauling the shaken Gojyo back to the Casino's service area. And after that, Hakkai had stopped smiling, hopelessness and self-reproach written clearly on his face until he had put on a mask of indifference and false smiles. Gojyo knew that he never wanted to see his friend suffering like that again. 'He mustn't know when they ask for me. I can't let him know.'
Morning began early, much too early for Gojyo's taste. After a relatively plentiful breakfast, the slaves were herded out to the square in front of the inn and received the final orders for the long journey.
"Only the strongest will survive. Losses are expected. We'll depart from here in twenty minutes. You all know your vehicle and your assigned group. Don't leave them without permission if you treasure your life." Lord Kougaiji came to the end of his short speech, pausing for a short while to let the information sink in, then said. "Dismissed."
Gojyo couldn't help but worry, tugging at the thick metal branding cuff. Of course, everyone knew that their journey through Tougenkyo would not be a holiday trip. The group of slaves, SMP and Kougaiji's party consisted of almost three hundred people, two busses, six trucks and several cars. The convoy would be slow moving at best which made them a sitting duck for any attackers. And the closer they would make it towards the demon prince's homeland, the higher was the probability that marauders and assorted bandits would go after the precious cargo. They would have to defend themselves. Gojyo wondered briefly if Goku still had Nyo-I-Bo. 'Well, I'll find out soon enough.'
The assembly of people scattered to board their respective mode of transportation, and Gojyo went over to where Jeep was waiting for them. They had already packed the hakuryuu with supplies and other materials needed to survive the months it would take to reach Houtou Castle, and Gojyo could tell that riding on the back seats would be a pain in the ass – literally. But that wasn't his concern, since he would not be the one who had to endure the uncomfortable back row, no matter if Sanzo occupied that seat right now. The times were he had let himself being pushed around by the blond were over, once and for all.
For a moment, there was no reaction at all. Sanzo wore a dazed expression, as if he was still half asleep, which he probably was. If Gojyo recalled correctly, the human had never been much of a morning person, and that particular habit obviously hadn't changed over the years. His former master continued to stare at the dashboard, but then he slowly lifted his head to meet Gojyo's eyes.
Sanzo blinked, his left eye still swollen half shut from the punch Gojyo had landed on his face the previous morning. Defiance sparkled in his eyes, making the violet of his irises glow from within, but he remained silent. And neither did he move. Anger pulsed through Gojyo and he grabbed Sanzo by the collar of his torn robe.
"You think you still can act like the master, Sanzo-sama?" Gojyo snarled, the venom that dominated his voice only topped by the violence with which he rattled Sanzo. "Move your filthy carcass out of my seat and into the back where you belong, or I swear I won't hold back this time."
"Gojyo, please stop! It's not his fault."
Goku's voice suddenly tore through the red haze that clouded Gojyo's vision. "Not his fault?"
"I'm sorry, I made him sit there. It looked more comfortable, and I thought..."
There were occasions when Hakkai could make you freeze on spot with a single word, and this was one of them. 'Shit. Where did he come from all of a sudden?' Then Gojyo saw the SMP, who had also noticed the ruckus he had caused. 'Damn. I need to be more careful.' With an annoyed growl, he let go of the man, and Sanzo slumped in the passenger seat for a moment before straightening himself. Fortunately, the SMP decided to ignore the quarrel.
"Goku, Gojyo won't hurt Sanzo. Right, Gojyo?" Hakkai shot him a warning glance.
"Right... And now, get out of my seat, dirt bag!" Gojyo half expected that Sanzo would insist on the front seat, but much to his surprise, the defiance had vaporised into dog-like obedience.
"As you wish." Sanzo unbuckled himself and climbed into the narrow back of the hakuryuu, trying to squeeze his legs into the available space while still leaving plenty of room for Goku.
Gojyo took his seat, but the triumph felt empty. It was as if the old Sanzo no longer existed, and it unsettled Gojyo somewhat. Kicking around this lap dog of a slave certainly was rewarding in itself, but... 'It's not really satisfying.' It didn't help that both Hakkai and Goku glared at him as if he was the perpetrator. Only Sanzo behaved as if nothing happened, staring at the back of the seat through hooded eyes. Time crawled slowly as they waited in mutual, uneasy silence for the signal to start the journey, but finally everything checked out okay and they were allowed to depart.
"That was unnecessary," Hakkai scolded, after a few minutes of driving had brought them out of earshot of their guards. "I know you hate Sanzo, but please try to control yourself as long as the SMPs are around."
"Hn," Gojyo grumbled. Of course he knew that Hakkai was right. Fighting amongst the slaves was punished severely, and he was not just risking his own life but that of the other three as well. "I'm sorry. I didn't think."
Hakkai smirked. "It would've surprised me if you had thought before acting."
"Why, you..." Gojyo started, but then just laughed. "Guess, you're right."
The sun slowly set behind the horizon. The day had been uneventful, if not to say, dull. Goku had not complained about being hungry once, even though Gojyo could hear the saru's stomach rumble above the music that played from the radio. Instead, Goku had traded seats with Sanzo after the lunch break, so that he could easily intervene, should Gojyo try anything. 'You'd fight for him no matter what, don't you, Goku?'
The kid had become much more serious than Gojyo remembered, making him wonder what Konchen had done to Goku. 'Did you endure the same as your Sanzo-sama? Or worse?'
Gojyo's musings were cut short when they arrived at the camping ground where the major part of the convoy stayed overnight. The rest were split up on the two inns in town.
The four of them had to share a big tent with six others. It was a welcome change from the tension day's tension. Setting up the tent, however, proved to be more difficult than expected. 'Not to mention that Sanzo was responsible for collapsing the blasted thing twice. He sure didn't gain many friends today.' In the end, they were all sweaty and exhausted, and by the time they had cleaned themselves up, the dinner leftovers were not enough to fill ten hungry stomachs.
"Hey, blondie, don't you think you owe us your share of the dinner?"
"Yeah. It's your fault that we were late."
"Leave him alone!" Goku snapped.
"Says me," Hakkai smiled dangerously. But before the situation escalated, an SMP entered the mess tent, and they fell quiet.
"Which one of you is Gojyo?"
Gojyo suppressed a sigh. "That would be me."
"You know why I'm here?" the SMP asked with a grin, covering the distance between them until he stood directly behind him.
'What's he up to? Do they want to punish me for this morning?' Gojyo tensed, noticing the thin rope – or was that a whip- in the man's hand. "Should I... Sir?"
"But of course you should. Dokugakuji-sama wants to test your special skills." The SMP uncoiled the rope, attached it as a leash to Gojyo's branding cuff, and his dirty smirk made it obvious what he thought those special skills were. "Seems he has a thing for red heads..."
Gojyo froze, his entire being paralysed by the knowledge of what he knew would come. Most of his fellow slaves stared at him, except for Sanzo, whose sole interest seemed to be the plate of food that had almost been taken from him. Hakkai's face was filled with sorrow.
'I'm sorry... I didn't want you to know.' But he didn't want to go again, he was sick and tired of letting others use him. "I can't... No more."
"What was that?" the SMP shot him a warning glance. "Move your lazy ass and follow me."
"No." Gojyo dug his fingers into his palms. 'Shit. I didn't say 'no' to a direct order just now, did I?' But he must have, because the SMP now looked decidedly pissed.
"You little smut!" A hard yank at the leash dragged Gojyo to his knees and the SMP hissed: "You want me to make you perform your 'skills' right here in front of the others?"
Gojyo paled. With effort, he subdued his fears and stilled the trembling of his hands.
"Sir, I'll go in his place."
Hakkai all but jumped to his feet, determination written on his face, and that very moment Gojyo realised that history would repeat itself if he didn't stop his friend right now.
"What's your name and function?" the SMP asked.
"Hakkai, medic slave, Sir."
"Then what makes you think Dokugakuji-sama wants you, if he has specifically asked for a love slave named Gojyo?"
No one dared to join in the man's laughter.
Anger burned in the SMP's eyes. "I don't think so."
"I will go in his place." Hakkai repeated, but the next moment, he winced and would have collapsed, if Goku hadn't caught him.
'The PunTag will kill him! Don't do this, Hakkai, not for me.' Gojyo took a deep breath. "It's okay, Hakkai. No need to worry, I'll be back soon."
Without turning back, he followed the SMP to the car that waited to bring an insignificant love slave to Dokugakuji-sama. Gojyo hadn't forgotten how the sword master had studied him when they were presented to Lord Kougaiji the previous day. The look had been filled with interest, and something else that could've been longing or wishful thinking... Whatever it was, it had made Gojyo's skin crawl.
'Love slave'. Even the function code was a joke. And Hakkai was hurting again, had risk his life once more – for what? 'I'm nothing. My branding cuff says I'm less than dirt even by slave standards, my master's pleasure toy. Or, that of his minions if he decides so.'
The ride to the inn only took a few minutes, but Gojyo's thoughts revolved around what lied ahead in a wild and crazy dance, mixed with feelings that were near out of control when they finally reached their destination. When he walked up the narrow flight of stairs, his innards were so cramped that he thought he'd throw up any moment.
The hotel room was small, but comfortable. A bed, a night stand, a table covered with documents of all sorts, and in the midst of all of it, the man who had requested his service for the night. Gojyo took in a deep breath and closed off his feelings, concentrating on the pattern of the wooden floor. "How may I please you?"
Gojyo kneeled, his hands pressed flat against his tights, head bowed in submission. Dokugakuji came closer with heavy steps until he stood right in front of him. A large hand reached for his chin and lifted it up gently, forcing him to look into the other's face.
Gojyo suppressed a shiver. 'Don't look. Don't think. It's just a bad dream.' But denial didn't work, it never had worked. So he looked into Dokugakuji's face, trying to see what he had to expect.
That moment, Gojyo knew he had made the biggest mistake in his life. 'No! No, this... can't be!' He wished he could just forget the image that had burnt itself into his consciousness. 'How is this possible? Why does it have to be him, of all people?'
A second look confirmed his suspicion. The birthmarks on Dokugakuji's nose and forehead were the same as Jien's, and that smile was unmistakable. 'He has a thing for red heads.' The words of the SMP echoed in Gojyo's ears, and he shivered. It made all sense now.
'You must really hate me for what you had to do... Mom always cried because of me. Child of taboo, that's what I am... You should have let her kill me, Jien...'
When Jien gently brushed the strands of red hair from Gojyo's cheeks and revealed the ugly scars he had tried to hide for most of his life, fear joined the sadness. 'Does he know who I am? Did he recognise me?'
Jien released his chin, and Gojyo quickly bowed his head again, feeling his heart race. 'What now, what will happen now?'
"You..." Jien growled gently, then grabbed Gojyo's hands and raised them slowly.
'Oh gods.' Gojyo's eyes widened. 'Please don't make me do this, brother!'