V4: Chapter 9 – Criminal Justice | Part 1.1 – Wrongful Imprisonment
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New Volume 4 Chapter(s) Weekly. Volumes 1-3 now complete!

Gatrim hobbled his way forward over the mountain, leaning on his rapier that had been demoted to a mere walking stick. Blood was still seeping out of his wounds, his once white clothes now seeped in crimson. More had certainly left his body than remained. The fact that he still lived, still stayed conscious, was a miracle—marching ahead on nothing but his strength of will.

When he reached the peak, the desire to look behind him surged. He had no idea if his pursuers still persisted or if they’d given up long ago. But he didn’t dare turn around to check, only focused on what lay ahead. And with his goal in sight, his safety, his freedom, losing his momentum now could mean his death right before the finish line.

The trip down the mountain was much quicker, but not by choice. He stumbled repeatedly, barely keeping any sort of footing for more than a few steps. Each slip up cost him more blood than he could afford to lose, getting harder to stand back up failure after failure. But out of pure stubbornness, he made it to the bottom.

And then his goal was only a few steps away: the seldom used northern gate of the Fiends For Hire compound. Somehow, even though the path was flat and straight, those last few feet were the hardest. His muscles were failing, his vision getting woozy, his breath heavy and staggered. But he could sense it, the barrier just ahead. Even if he died the moment he crossed, he would have seen it through to the end, accomplishing a hellish odyssey few could even dream of.

Gatrim did not make it. Two steps away, he collapsed. His body had betrayed him, completely unable to move. With his last ounce of strength, he shot his hand forward and dug his fingers into the dirt. He’d pull himself across the threshold, but it wasn’t enough. Maybe he’d moved an inch, but that was all he had. His vision started to fade, darkness enveloping him. But the last thing he saw was a blurred figure approaching.

◆◆◆

Gatrim awoke to a light shining directly into his eyes. He winced and blinked, and the light pulled away. What remained was Dr. Farian’s face giving him a relaxed smile. The boy tried to say something, but the doctor put a finger in front of his own lips, suggesting that he keep quiet. He then pointed off to the side and Gatrim’s eyes followed.

The room was filled with machines and monitors. He almost felt robotic with how many blinking devices were hooked up to him. But one of the machines was hooked up to someone else. It was Kaizu, unconscious in a comfy chair by his side. Blood was being drawn from her, filtered through the machine and pumped into his own body.

“You’re quite lucky to have her,” Farian got close and whispered to him. “She’s the only Lesser on campus that’s a universal donor, and you, my friend, were missing quite a lot of blood. We didn’t dare transfuse human or Fiend blood into you, unsure of what would happen. And you were too far gone for Ahvra to heal. So she quite literally saved your life. Be sure to thank her when she wakes up.”

The doctor then ran a few more tests, changed some fluids, and left the room. He ordered Gatrim to get as much rest as possible, which at the moment, he had no choice but to oblige. The Lesser fell back asleep against his will, the exhaustion of healing overpowering even his resolve.

When he woke up again, this time it was Kaizu’s face filling his view—a face he’d never seen before, one he didn’t know she was capable of making. She was a mess. Her usual obsessively tidy hair was in shambles and tears were streaming down her face. The woman’s lips were quivering and finally leaked a word. “You bastard!”

She grabbed his bandaged chest and began to shake it violently. “Guh, gah! Kaizu! My wounds!” The boy could feel his stitches crying out, on the verge of tearing.

“Deal with it!” she showed no mercy. “I haven’t heard from you in months! Not a word, not a text, not even a letter just to prove you were alive! Deborah kept insisting that you’d been checking in every day so you had some way to reach out! And Drim said that he went to observe you, and that he gave you a device to ask for help if you’d need it.”

“But then you show up like this! Shot to hell and barely a drop of blood in your body! Do you know how many bullets Farian pulled out of you? Sixteen! You should be dead! Is that what you wanted?! To die out there alone, and I never would have seen you again. So why? Why didn’t you just ask for help?!”

“I’m sorry, Kaizu,” Gatrim apologized genuinely, looking away because he couldn’t bear to look her in the eyes any longer. “I just needed to prove to myself that I could do it on my own. But… I failed. So that’s why I’m back. I’m here to ask for help.

◆◆◆

“Okay, I brought everyone you asked for,” Kaizu returned to the clinic with a full ensemble. “And a few that wanted to check up on you or were just being nosy.” The room was certainly packed beyond capacity now. Crucion looked more surprised than anyone that he’d been invited, and Itsy waited at the doorway, not wanting to cram her massive figure inside. “So tell us about this reckless mission you’ve been on.”

Gatrim sat up, gritting through the pain that echoed across his body. Farian winced as the boy shifted around and various tubes ripped out of his body. But he just couldn’t stand all those people staring down at him with pity. So he whirled his feet over the side of the bed and sat up straight and proud.

“This was a request from the new Vice-Rep of Regend. I guess the upstart wanted to do something big to prove himself—something I can very much relate to. There’s a prison right near the border with Segrevide that boasts itself as one of the first prisons that can handle Lesser criminals. But there've been some unsavory rumors about the prison, and it was believed that some of the Lessers have been vanishing without a trace.”

“Anytime someone requested to visit one of these Lessers, they were denied each time with a myriad of excuses. Eventually, it got to a point that attorneys started demanding proof of life. Which the prison complied to after several delays with pictures of the Lessers in their cells with an unforgeable timestamp. But they always looked to be in terrible states. That alone was worth the investigation since there were clear signs of neglect.”

“So a few months ago, I committed a petty crime in the area and let myself be arrested. Within an hour, I found myself processed and in a jail cell. No trial, no attorney, no questioning. They didn’t seem to know or care that I was a member of the Fiends For Hire. The intake processor stamped the paper without even really looking at it.”

“And that’s where I’ve been all this time, imprisoned in that jail in their Lesser ward. Just after a few days, I could definitively say that some Lessers certainly went missing. They’d just be led away for paltry reasons and never returned. When I pestered the guards about it, they insisted that they’d been moved to solitary confinement, and to not cause trouble or I’d receive the same treatment.”

“So that’s what I did, on purpose. I kept trying to act out and misbehave, to get them to take me wherever the other Lessers were, but they never took the bait. After reflecting on it, I believe that I wasn’t what they were looking for. They wanted rowdy prisoners that would act out or break the rules so that they had an excuse on paper. But they also wanted ones that could be easily broken and do whatever they were making them do.”

“I saw a couple of the Lessers that were brought back for pictures. They looked terrible. Scuffs all over their body, cuts on their hands, fresh from a shower but still not quite clean. The guards would only put them back in their cells for a few minutes, give them some food to make them look more spry—probably the first decent meal they’d had since they left.”

“My guess is they’re being taken somewhere for forced labor. I don’t know what or why, and I could never figure out where. Through some favors and a few reckless actions, I managed to scope out pretty much the entire prison, but there was no sign of them. Eventually, I resigned that the only way to figure out the location was to be taken there.”

“I got impatient. I grabbed one of the guards and threatened that I’d kill them if they didn’t take me to the other Lessers. But they just shot right through her and tried to kill me too. So I broke into the storage room, grabbed my gear, and made my escape.”

“And they chased after me when, for how long I’m not sure. But they definitely tried to gun me down and pursued me relentlessly. I don’t know if they didn’t want an escape on their record or were more worried of the secrets I’d try to spill. So I made the trek all the way back home, not wanting to put anyone else in danger by showing my face in public.”

“They probably think that Gatrim Foilepe is dead, or at least that would be the best case scenario. Because I’m going back. I’m going to finish this job. But I’ve learned from my mistakes, and I know that I can’t do it alone. So that’s why I had Kaizu bring you all here. I’m going to swallow my pride and ask for your help.”

There was a bit of a pause in the room as everyone processed his tale, but Itsy broke the silence. “So what’s the plan, then?! We gon’ break in, smash some skulls, wreck up the place and demand that show us what’s what?”

“Maybe we should ask the bigwigs for help,” Niloy suggested. “They could just bust right in and get everyone to spill their guts in seconds.”

“No!” Gatrim immediately refused, ready to pounce and attack that idea as he usually would. But then he softened his tone a bit, trying to be a bit more constructive. “I mean, we shouldn’t always be relying on them. How are we supposed to improve, ever make it to their level, if we only ever see them as better than us?”

“And besides that, if this job has taught me anything, it’s that violence isn’t the solution to everything. Losing my patience and lashing out nearly cost me the mission and my life. Not to mention that causing a ruckus would go against our requestor’s wishes. He only asked for evidence of any wrongdoing, and I plan to honor that. At least until we have definitive proof. What happens after that will likely depend on what we find.”

“So I want to do this one right. I’m planning to go back in under a new identity. But to increase the odds of success, I was hoping some of you would come with me. Essentially, it would entail being locked up in prison indefinitely until the mission is complete. The goal would be to try and get yourself forced to the secondary holding area to find evidence.”

“It won’t be easy. It won’t be fun. From my experience, you’ll be mistreated, underfed, looked down upon like you’re less than human. Those months taught me hubris like I’ve never known before. In some ways, I think it was good for me, to really shed my noble past and see things from the bottom of society. But it’s not something that’s for everyone, so I’m not going to try and pressure anyone to try and join. If none of you want to come with me, then I have a few requests for support from the outside.”

“Well, I’m definitely going,” Kaizu immediately volunteered. “If you don’t have someone looking out for you, then you really will die in there this time.”

“I was born to play this role;” Chorus jumped at the proposition. “Method acting has always been my preferred style, so I’ll get into the mindset of the desperate prisoner.”

“While I appreciate the enthusiasm, I’m afraid I’ll have to decline,” Gatrim refused their offer. “Fiends won’t work. There’s just no hiding your hair color, and they’d find a wig immediately during the first inspection. But that said… I do think there’s one that can get by.”

“Itsy, I think you’d be able to fool them. Your hair color is actually pretty common among women in the prison who can get their hands on some dye. Plus your Curse Marks look very similar to some other tattoos I’ve seen. And you don’t know what your Curse is, so you wouldn’t potentially use it accidentally like everyone else. Just add some colored contacts and they should be none the wiser. And with your physique, they should be desperate to try and move you, assuming there is forced labor going on. Really you’re the ideal candidate.”

“Naww, shucks, you’ll make a girl blush,” Itsy batted her hand playfully. “But yeah, I’m in. And I can always break us out if things go wrong.”

“And that’s already a great start, thank you,” Gatrim shared his appreciation with the group. “But I do think having one more person to round out the personalities and capabilities would give us the best odds of completing this mission. Which is why, Crucion, I think you’d do well, if you’re willing.”

“Huh, but I’m human?!” he was stunned at the suggestion. “Didn’t you say that they only target Lessers? And I wouldn’t be able to have my suit that boosts my strength. They’d totally figure me out.”

“As far as I’m aware, yes,” Gatrim confirmed. “But you’ve already pretended to be a Lesser before and fooled the crowd around you. Plus, you’ve gotten a lot stronger since then. You’ve been working hard and we’ve all noticed. Just throw some contacts back on and get a temporary tattoo, and the guards shouldn’t bat an eye.”

“Yeh, I can confirm,” Itsy jumped in again. “You gotten real strong there, lil’ buddy. Been lifting heavy stuff in my shop no problem that even I struggled with when I was a human. You can do this, and I’d like it if you were there with me.”

“Okay, I’m in!” That was apparently all it took.

“Umm, so what are the rest of us supposed to do if Fiends can’t go?” Rezin asked, seemingly quite confused as to why he was there at all—and was now regretting asking since it drew everyone’s attention to him.

“Well, for you specifically, I was hoping you could get us inside,” the ringleader answered. “If we all tried to commit crimes independently to get arrested or acted as a group, things could happen quite differently. But with you there with us, we should be able to just go right up to the front door. And Chorus should be able to make us the outfits we need, and Niloy can help us hide some defining features—well a complete makeover for me.”

“I’ll go over the plan in more detail as we get closer, but I do still need a few more days of rest. So please, take this time to wrap up anything you need to do, or enjoy anything you’ve been putting off. We may not get to breathe free air again for a while.”

◆◆◆

“Your hair is so luscious, Gatrim,” Niloy was combing it all out. At its full length, his golden locks went down to the base of his spine. “You really want me to cut it that short?”

“Yes, I need to look as indistinct from my current self as possible,” the boy remained committed. “We can’t have the guards suspecting my identity for even a second. But shaving it off would be too conspicuous as well and make them focus on my face. So a completely new look and color.”

“Well, I’ll just sell it to Hairionette to make a wig out of,” the impromptu barber chuckled. “This level of quality should go for a high price. So what color were you thinking?”

“I guess a dark brown,” Gatrim muttered. “Should be a decent contrast. I originally wanted to go jet black like Kaizu’s but she kept insisting that it would make us look too much like siblings and would cause unforeseen problems.”

“Uhuh, she would say that,” Niloy smirked and then got to cutting. It was a drawn out process since the girl was only an amateur and was trying to do her best. When they got to the makeup, though, things went much quicker—more in her wheelhouse.

“So what do you think?” She asked after she put on the finishing touches. “It should hold for a few months, and then it’ll start to crack naturally and should give you a smooth transition. But hopefully you won’t be in there that long.”

The girl started to clean up, but Gatrim couldn’t stop staring into the mirror. He didn’t recognize the person he was seeing at all, especially not the short brown hair, left just long enough to be tied up into a bun. There was no sign of his noble heritage or the hardships he’d been through. This was a clean slate, one he couldn’t let himself tarnish. When he finished this mission, maybe he could bear to look at his real self in the mirror once more.

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