|Hakujou na Enjinsha Black Jack
Author: Vernelley PM
A team of novice bounty hunters are called to capture Black Jack, a notorious phantom thief who seeks to gather the mystical Animulus Artefacts and obliterate any obstacle in his path. But there's more to the deadly criminal than a mere predilection for stealing and killing...Rated: Fiction M - English - Crime/Supernatural - Chapters: 25 - Words: 81,601 - Reviews: 173 - Favs: 17 - Follows: 15 - Updated: 08-26-12 - Published: 08-07-11 - Status: Complete - id: 2940737
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
18. Quintessence of Dust
In my time, I have seen humans
praying for the perfect world,
a world of peace and equality.
the perfect world can never exist
until your kind is annihilated.
I had long lost the desire to live.
Perhaps two months had passed since I had been inducted into this hovel of human abomination – I do not know for certain, for I had ceased counting the days at the time. Every waking hour was a nightmare, and in the dark, tenfold worse. More resided in this house than the man named Shikijou, women as well as men, but they were all the same; each shared the same unbridled voracity, and for the duration of my stay, I lived only to serve as the means through which their appetites were satiated. My will to resist diminished with each passing day. Before long I was rendered almost entirely lifeless, a marionette with severed strings.
A tender caress against the skin of my bare leg awoke me one morning. My eyes opened to behold a man's visage before mine. Judging from the creases in his face, he could not have been younger than forty years of age. I recognised him; he had used me before on several occasions. One of his hands snaked into my hair and pulled firmly as he pushed his mouth against mine, his other hand continuing to stroke my exposed thigh. He pulled me closer to his body, shielded only by the thick bedclothes. I could only allow him to do as he pleased; the energy requisite for resistance had long deserted me. His fingers sought the sore bruises that had flowered over much of my body and applied intense pressure to each one. I saw his lips twist into a smile as I winced in reaction.
I did not know how long I lay nestled among the covers, motionless as his hands continued to violate every inch of my exposed body. With the strength of his arms, he pinned my body against the bed and forced himself against me, refusing to relent until a cry escaped my lips. He finally relinquished his hold and turned his back to me, beginning to gather his garments and dress in haste.
As he was about to exit the room, he paused by the door and glanced back at me, his tongue tracing his lips as he smirked. "It's a shame, but I enjoyed it while it lasted." He passed through the doorway without another word.
Barely had I time to ponder the meaning of his words when Shikijou knocked on the door once and entered. I instinctively recoiled as he sat on the edge of the mattress close to me, his hand outstretched. I shuddered as I felt the heat of his hand threaten to scorch my skin as it slowly slid down my neck, down my torso and down the side of my leg. A moment later, he withdrew his hand and spoke.
"I've noticed it myself only lately, but I've been informed that you're no longer performing to our standards. I suppose it's just a little wear and tear, but quite frankly, I have no use for broken toys."
Swiftly, he raised his hand again and struck me forcefully on the cheek until my eyes watered and I failed to suppress a sharp gasp. He caught my arm and began to force it into the sleeve of my shirt, which he had taken from the foot of the bed. He continued to talk as he roughly clothed my frame.
"Perhaps your performance has declined because you're so well acquainted with all of us. I do think it would be rather wasteful to simply let you rot away, so I've… made some arrangements. Don't worry, someone is bound to find use for you."
He rose from the bed and walked toward the door, but he did not exit. Rather, he called to someone out of sight. "Come and take him."
A group of men, dressed in the same manner as Shikijou's usual fashion, entered the room and approached the bed. Two of them seized me by the wrists; I let them. A third man approached me with a syringe in his hands and quickly injected its contents into my neck. I felt the sting of the needle biting through my skin. It was a potent substance; my vision instantly blurred into a formless blend of colours before fading into blackness.
Indistinct, vociferous chatter was the first thing of which I became aware when my capacity for sensation was gradually restored. I found myself lying in a dark space, and attempting to move alerted me that my wrists and ankles were bound. Struggling to sit upright, my back leaned against a wall of alternating solid bars and nothingness, and it occurred to me that I now sat in a cage. Around me I heard the rattling and clanking of chains and other cages. My pulse quickened. I knew not where I was, or anything of my circumstances but that I was contained in this small prison.
The noises grew into an unintelligible roar, but subsided after a few moments. A single amplified voice could be heard, but it was muffled and I understood not what it said.
I sensed movement around me; there seemed to be men navigating their way through the hosts of cages. One of them grunted with exertion, evidently having lifted something of significant weight. For a brief moment, a curtain was swept aside, allowing a flood of light to invade the dark space. It lasted only long enough for the man to carry the cage out, before the darkness returned.
My cage, along with several others, was shifted closer to the curtain. The amplified voice mentioned a string of numbers and the country Nakaji, followed by more numbers. Members of the crowd began to call out, and the voice from the speakers would occasionally repeat the number they had called. After a few minutes, the crowd's chatter grew into a roar once again, diminishing only at the request of the magnified voice.
The same process was repeated about three or four times before I realised what was happening. I made sense of the numbers and other descriptions provided by the man speaking into the microphone.
"Two and a half million! Item two hundred and fifty-three goes to number sixty-four!"
Again, the crowd thundered vigorously. My body froze in astonishment. Surely it was not what I thought it was.
"Settle down, settle down. Now we will present to you Item two hundred and fifty-four!"
The rhythm in my chest abruptly stopped as my cage was lifted from the floor and carried beyond the curtain. Radiant light glared into my eyes as the steel prison was set back onto the floor. The venue appeared to be a spacious hall; the ceiling was high, and thousands of people were seated around the rounded platform where I sat.
"Item two hundred and fifty-four appears to be of Anglian origin…"
That the crowd's murmuring deadened into mutinous tones came as no great surprise.
The announcer continued. "Not much information has been provided on this item, unfortunately. However, if you're able to see from where you sit, you will notice that he is a very beautiful boy."
A vague murmur rippled through a part of the crowd, a combination of concurrence and disdain.
"Now then, the starting price is four thousand."
The muttering undertones persisted for a few minutes before one person stood. "Four thousand," he called out.
"Five thousand," contested another.
The bidders were few and far between. I pulled my knees to my chest, regretting that I had not the power to break free from this confinement and escape. Under normal circumstances, most Astra were physically analogous to humans, and though I was of regal lineage, I was much the same.
In the end, I was sold for a measly eight thousand.
My cage was placed in the collection area of the hall. I watched as my buyers stayed at the auction for several hours longer, continuing to bid for other caged humans at prices of at least twenty-five thousand, and were particularly excited about a bid that rose to eight hundred and fifty thousand, but they failed to acquire it.
Eventually they were unable to win any further bids and came to collect me. They were a large group of about twenty people, most of them men. Two of them hoisted the cage onto their shoulders and conveyed me outside to a dimly lit tunnel, where a van with dark windows awaited them. I was thrown carelessly into the back of the van while each member of the party filled the seats in the vehicle.
The vast obsidian sky stretched overhead as the van emerged from the tunnel. Despite the late hour, I did not feel the least degree of somnolence – perhaps the rough terrain of the road was a contributing factor – and remained entirely awake and alert for the remainder of the journey.
Upon being carried out of the cargo hold, I beheld a rustic landscape. Crops grew in fields on every side of the narrow gravel path on which my container had been set. The sky had already begun to brighten, but the lamps that illuminated the entrance to the small village were still lit at this early hour.
I was placed on a cart and wheeled through the small village on a dusty dirt road. Tiny cottage houses were built close together on either side of the road, which was evidently the main means of traverse in the town. Washing lines in front of the houses drooped with the weight of the linen pegged to them. All was silent but for the wheels of the cart rolling over the dirt with a slight crunch.
My destination was evidently the large manor house at the end of the road. A low wall was built around it, and in the small garden grew a few trees, flowers and other shrubs; the grounds were otherwise barren. It was probably the wealthiest household in this lowly village. The cage was lowered from the cart and carried up the pebble path to the front door of the house by two men; the rest of the party had returned to their houses along the way.
The foyer of the manor was lit only with a few small candles. Shadows danced on the wall as the tiny flames flickered. My couriers brought the cubic steel prison into a narrow corridor to the side of the main entrance of the house. Though the air was quite warm, a chill ran across my skin. There was an ominous aura about this place.
I reached a dark, narrow room. Yet again, the cage was set down with a clank. One of the men spoke.
"We just came back from the auction. Unfortunately we weren't able to win much, besides the lowest selling item."
Slight movement from a corner of the room indicated the presence of the person to whom he spoke. There was a chair and a desk in the corner; the occupant of the chair sat facing the opposite direction. A low, cold voice responded tersely. "Mark him and send him to work."
A hand worked the locking mechanism of the cage and pulled the door open. Another hand hauled me carelessly out of the cage. Instinctively I recoiled, clutching myself tightly, as their hands tugged at my shirt. It was futile; the seams split audibly as they eventually ripped the cloth from my back.
Their iron grip trapped my arms as they led me out of the room, up the corridor and through a side door of the house. The air smelt heavily of smoke and metal. Judging from the many articles of metalware and tools that hung on the surrounding walls and from the ceiling, it was some sort of refinery; hammers, a bellows and various types of machinery occupied most of the small space, while newly created knives hung on the walls or were scattered across the workbench.
A smith leaned against another workbench, resting from his labours. From his lips protruded a clay pipe, issuing smoke that contributed to the stench. He detected our arrival with a hardened glare, particularly at me. He spoke with a coarse, grating voice to the men who led me.
"Another one for marking?"
"Yes," they answered.
The smith grunted. "Then hold him." He rose from the bench and began to search among his tools.
The men seized my arms and propelled me toward a wall, pushing my body against it and leaving my bare back exposed. An attempt to move my arms was not necessary to know that a struggle would be vain. I craned my neck to observe what the smith was doing, but I immediately regretted it and turned back to the wall, my lower lip clenched tightly between my teeth.
I had seen him holding a glowing iron, and his steps now advanced toward me.
The grip on my arms tightened as the footsteps ceased. I felt the heat scorch my skin mere seconds before the hot metal was pressed against my lower back. The pain of a thousand knives tearing through my flesh burnt through my skin. I could no longer remain immobile; I struggled to free myself from my captors but it was futile. Every passing moment was torture. Tormented screams rose in my chest and escaped my lips. Tears welled up in my eyes and trickled down my face as my body twisted and writhed in agony.
After a few short moments that felt like an eternity, the iron was withdrawn and the smith resumed his metalwork as though he had done nothing unusual—and perhaps that was the case. I glanced at my back; it was uncomfortable position but I could just glimpse a vivid pink mark where my skin had been burnt. The two men who had held me now led me around the outside of the house to a field of wheat, pressed a bundle of coarse cloth into my arms and left me in the charge of another worker, an older woman no younger than thirty.
"Put the shirt on," she ordered brusquely.
Hesitantly, I draped the rough apparel around myself and pulled my arms through the sleeves. It simply covered my back; there was no means of closing it in front. The fibres in the cloth scraped my skin raw.
"Good. Now take this basket and go over there with the others."
Again, I hesitated. My circumstances were alien to me; I had been purchased at an auction and marked property of the household in a strange village, and now I was ordered to work as a servant, all in a matter of hours.
"Stop wasting time. Hurry up and get over there."
The whip lashed across my chest. Barbs embedded in the leather dug into my skin and tore gashes through it. Blood seeped from the wounds.
I picked up the crudely crafted cane basket and walked through the field, pushing past overgrown stalks until I reached a group of other workers. Like me, they too had burn marks in their skin; some had it on their arms, others had it on their neck, and others barely concealed the marks on their back with their rough clothes. They were all in the act of picking wheat.
I was instructed to search a certain sector of the field for good wheat. It proved to be a harder task than I had expected; most of the wheat in this field had begun to decay. It also became evident that the worker who brought the least yield at the end of the day would be punished harshly; I overheard two of the workers speculating that it would be me. Hours passed, and one by one, the rare stalks of good wheat fell into the basket. By the end of the third hour, there was barely enough to cover the bottom of the basket.
The rest of the village had awoken and gone about their daily business. I later came to the awareness that most of the inhabitants of this village were property of the same household but worked under different instructors. Some plucked wheat, others corn, some plucked fruit and so on. All that was harvested was given to the main household. As payment, servants and workers were able to sleep under a roof and between walls.
That none of the workers wanted to be punished was hardly astonishing, but the means they chose to take to avoid the punishment were initially shocking to me. To avoid having the least yield, they would steal crops from others' baskets. It happened to me the most; I often caught notice of them as I was inspecting stalks, but I never chased after them to retrieve it, or even notified them that I was aware of their actions. Though we were all servants, I seemed to have an especially low status, and I knew it was because of my heritage. I recalled texts I had read about justice eventually coming into place, but despite all my knowledge, I was ignorant as a child.
In this world, there is only human justice, and it is hardly true justice.
By the end of one week, I had worked in fields of wheat, corn and rice, as well as orchards of various fruit trees, and as a result of having brought the least yield five times that week, I was beaten with an electric cattle prod on five days. Barely an inch of my skin was left unblemished by scars and burns.
Months passed, and my circumstances hardly changed, apart from the injury and eventual death of one worker who had taken to stealing from my yield. The next day, there was another to take his place, and as weeks passed, none of the other workers seemed to remember the worker who had been buried in a crude grave. It was then that I realised the worthlessness of human existence.
After a human's death, those around him eventually forget him, and it is as if his existence never was. Everything is replaceable; even human life.
After about three months of living a slave's existence, a form of ephemeral salvation came. It occurred on one of the rare opportunities I had to work inside the manor house, cleaning and cooking, a chance for which the other servants frequently fought. There seemed to be important visitors in the house that day, a married Hidzuchian couple who appeared to be in their early forties. Judging from their fine attire and refined manner, they were of considerable status whence they came.
I happened to be cleaning in the meeting room where they were discussing something pertinent to trading between their villages; apparently the couple had been sent as representatives for authorities who had been unable to attend. However, they seemed less engaged in their discussion than they did in the Anglian child in the corner of the room working as a servant.
The woman seemed especially concerned. "Isn't she a bit young to be working?" She was evidently unaware I could understand Hidzuchian, or that I was male; the cutting of hair was not thought a necessity, and I was aware that my features were regarded as feminine by some.
The head of the household, my owner, disagreed. "It isn't too young. If you ask me, it's better to have them start working at a young age to build up their work ethic at an early stage."
"What are all those marks on her skin?" asked the man of the couple sharply. "They look like scars, or burns."
My owner was nonchalant. "They have to be disciplined every so often." I heard the woman mumble the words 'cruel' and 'inhumane'.
The man continued to enquire, his gaze becoming increasingly grim. "Is she Anglian?"
"I am told so."
"How did an Anglian child come to work in your household?"
"Some of my subordinates won it at an auction." My owner was not ashamed.
The woman spoke again, her voice strained with indignation. "How can you do this to a child?"
My possessor was agitated. "It was paid for, and it's been put to good use. But that's not your concern. My workers are not the reason you have travelled here."
They refused to be distracted. "It's not right to do this to someone so young—"
"Would you like to buy it, then?" His voice dripped with venomous sarcasm.
To the utter astonishment of my owner, the man answered, "If you're willing to sell her."
Recomposing himself, the household head folded his arms. "Fine. It doesn't work very well anyway. We only paid eight thousand for it."
The woman's face was astounded, but her husband remained calm. "Then we'll pay you the same amount, in Anglian currency."
My owner snorted. "Eight thousand Anglian pounds? It isn't worth nearly that much. But very well, if you insist. The loss is yours."
After such an exchange, I was sold to the couple for over a hundred times more than my original price.
I had not been fortunate enough to meet humans like them before; they made no attempt to manhandle me or abuse me, and seemed genuinely concerned about my wellbeing. They eventually discovered that I was male and capable of communicating in Hidzuchian, but it made no difference to them. They told me the price they had paid was far less than the value of any human being, but they were aware that all my owner had any interest in was money. They promised to formally bring me into their family, under a safe and nurturing home.
Human resolve is weak.
Arrogant humans, you think yourselves
the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals,
but in reality you are no more than a quintessence of dust.
Humans turned his world into
a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours,
an unweeded garden that grows to seed.
A/N: Revised 14 Apr 2013.
© 2012. Yueci Tan.