Roland von Bremen was a Knight of the Black Forest. Hans gathered that it was some kind of title in the Troll Kingdom to the South, but wasn't sure how to ask. For reasons that he was cautioned not to ask, Roland was in exile here in Berlin, or on some kind of leave. None of the students knew, but they all speculated when he wasn't around. He made a living teaching various martial arts to the Orks and Trolls that could pass his tests. Hans was the first human to apply - most people don't seek to learn martial arts from sparring with Trolls. The method of testing was usually the same, unarmed combat with an existing student, but the criterion by which he judged the prospective students was unknown. Some who had won their fight were rejected, just as some who lost were accepted. It was generally held that "Old Roland" seemed to be more interested in how one conducted oneself, than in raw power. Hans was worried that his loss of temper would ruin his chances. However, after they had patched up Spike and had him resting comfortably, Roland told him to bring his gear to the warehouse.
The training was intensive, and lasted from early morning until late at night, but oddly enough, Hans had an easier time with the hardest parts. Roland's techniques emphasized speed and agility, as well as raw power. Hans was smaller and more agile than even the quickest Ork students, though he did not have as much casual strength. They discovered early enough that when he pushed himself, Hans could almost match the biggest students in raw strength. He made a special point of not going berserk again. Technique was another matter though.
While he could move well when reacting instinctively, when it came to planning out techniques and executing combinations, he was the rankest amateur. He is an odd combination of proficiency and incompetence, Roland thought to himself as he watched him practice with his other five students. The teacher was an impressive figure, despite that he wore a simple brown tunic and pants. A short beard complemented the leonine mane of salt-and-pepper hair, surmounted by two overarching horns. The deep-set eyes were a startling shade of dark purple, though few got close enough to notice. His students were a motley crew, none wore a uniform. Instead, each wore their normal street clothes. Roland taught them to defend themselves from- and to act in- the real world. To learn how to fight in special uniforms would defeat the practical reasons for the training. He nodded thoughtfully as his gaze wandered over the students as they practiced blocks and counters. The new one learned fast, and he was beginning to control his strength better. He watched him work with Gerd, one of the Ork students. Roland frowned. Something was wrong.
Gerd was pushing as hard as he could, and Roland was hard put to block everything in time. Gerd's punches and kicks were not getting completely blocked, and he was occasionally clipping Hans with a particularly strong attack. What was wrong with Hans? He called a halt to the exercise and told them to take a breather. He followed Hans to the water cooler.
Hans was sipping the cold water, relishing the chill on his tongue, when he sensed Roland behind him. He turned and nodded a greeting.
"You are holding back." It was a statement, not a question.
"I was still blocking him. He fights harder when he thinks he just barely missed knocking me down." Hans shrugged.
"You will not ever do such a thing here again!" Hans jumped at the bass rumble. He'd never heard Roland really angry before. "In this school you fight your hardest or you do not fight at all. You wish to join us, but then you practice such deception. I will not have it!"
Hans noticed the other students looking up. He tried to keep his voice low. "I didn't want to hurt his pride. Enough already resent me being here as it is."
"Hurt pride heals. A false sense of confidence is far deadlier than wounded pride. You would lead a fellow student down the path to their death, just to make your own way easier?"
"Hey! You are twisting it all around! I just don't want to make problems for you or-" but Roland cut him off.
"Maybe that's why you were invited in? I will be the judge of what is to be a problem. Not you. Maybe I want the other students to know what it is to face an adept, a magically augmented human? You perhaps did not think of this? No matter. Your part is simple: When I tell you to fight, you will fight. When I tell you to train, you will train. You will not hold back. If you cannot do this, then I will not have you here. Am I understood?"
"Then get back out there, and you block as hard as you can, because some day you will need to be blocking as hard as you can, and some day Gerd will need to feel how hard his attacks can be blocked. Someday it will not be training!"
When the break ended, Roland saw a marked change. Hans' hands flashed into the blocks so quickly that even his eye had trouble see more than a blur. Gerd tried to keep his arm straight, and his brawny shoulder muscles bunched up as the tried to drive his fist into the human's face. The crack of arm against arm carried across the training area, as Gerd was spun halfway around by the force of the blocks. The Ork growled and redoubled his efforts, but only managed to spin himself around more from the recoil. When it was Han's turn to attack, his first punch was so fast that Gerd did not even start his block before the knuckles lightly tapped his chin. Gerd reddened and the next punch was met in time, but his blocking arm bounced off Han's elbow without making it move that much. On the next count, Hans' shin brushed past a hasty low block and the ball of his foot tapped Gerd in the ribs. This continued through the exercise until, at the end, Gerd was visibly shaking with rage. Hans kept his face expressionless as he bowed to his partner, half expecting Gerd to lash out at him. The Ork bow perfunctorily and stalked off.
"What did you learn today?"
Gerd glared at Hans. "That he is too damn fast to hit."
"And what would happen if you tried to fight him?"
The Ork sighed. "I would probably lose, okay?"
"Yes, there is someone faster and stronger. Therefore if you fight him directly you will probably lose. Remember, everyone, there is always someone stronger and faster." The old trolls eyes unfocused and looked into the distance for a moment as his hand, unconsciously, pressed into his side. "You are here to make the most of your potential, but there will always be someone stronger and faster, so if you don't have anything to fall back on when that happens, you will die." The deep-set eyes looked around the room again. "That goes for everyone here."
Hans looked thoughtful; perhaps he had learned more than one lesson.
At the end of his first week at the school, their evening class was interrupted by an Ork child hammering at the access door. When they opened it, the child stumbled in clutching at Roland's leg whimpering about the bad men. Roland picked the child up and looked him in the eyes. The child calmed somewhat, and after a moment said that the White Skins had seized her family's residential block. Han's stomach rolled over. The White Skins were a notorious racist gang devoted to some idea of Aryan perfection. The last time he'd heard about them doing something like this, they had let the residents that passed their criterion out of the complex, then burned it to the ground with the rest inside.
He turned toward his teacher and saw an anger that mirrored his own. "Gather yourselves," Roland said simply, "We leave in 2 minutes."
Hans grabbed his longcoat and stuffed some slap-patches into the deep pockets. He stopped and drank a quart of water, wiping his mouth off as Roland called everyone to the door. He checked his armor as they gathered. Roland looked grim as he surveyed his students. With Spike gone back to the UCAS, he only had a handful of students, none of them very experienced, facing an unknown number of racist fanatics. There wasn't really time to contact any of his old pupils, and time was of the essence if they were to do anything. He cautioned the child to stay put and not open the door or touch anything until they got back. With that, he led his half dozen students out into the streets.
They unconsciously formed a ring around Roland as they advanced down the darkened streets. After less than half a mile they could hear the yelling in the distance. As they got closer, they could hear screams mixed in with harsh shouts chanting slogans. Getting to the actual residential block meant going around a heavily guarded industrial park. Hans could feel the wary eyes of the guards upon them as they passed. He couldn't remember being part of a team like this before, a piece of something larger, more dangerous. The guards were afraid. He could feel them relax slightly as the passed them by. Finally, they turned unto Rutgenstrasse, the road that residential block opened onto. Two more blocks and they walked into a scene that wouldn't look out of place in the anterooms of hell.
The residential complex had the look typical of public housing. It was a blocky structure, comprised of prefabricated ferroconcrete pieces, angular, unlovely, and possessing all the warmth of prison cell. This one had all the windows shot out, and an overturned car blocking the only entrance Hans could see. Screams of fear and pain echoed from within, punctuated by bursts of small arms fire from the crowd in the streets whenever there was movement at a window. The only undamaged vehicles in the street were a pair of cargo vans and a old Ares Citymaster riot control vehicle that had seen better days. The water-cannon in the cupola on top of the Citymaster had been replaced with a pair of heavy machine guns.
Milling around the vehicles, yelling epithets at the ugly building and occasionally taking pot-shots at the inhabitants, were about two dozen humans. Some were wearing leathers and gang colors, others heavier armor. All of them had their trademark inset glass plates in their skulls. None of them seemed to be too heavily armed; a few pistols and a lot of knives and clubs, but Hans glanced warily at the turreted machine guns on the Citymaster.
Most of them had their attention focused on the building. Some of them were rolling ominous-looking steel drums from the two vans over to the walls of the housing block. Roland waved his hand forward and they spread out and advanced on the mob. Hans was brimming with adrenaline and anger, and he clenched his fists tighter and started to gather himself to charge.
"Welcome, Herr Bremer." The voice rang out from the Citymaster in the middle of the mob. Even with the amplification, it almost purred with smug overtones.
Roland paused, obviously surprised. "Hoffman?"
"We have been waiting for you and your merry troglodytes to make an appearance." The oily voice gloated. "Did you think to find us as unprepared as at our last meeting? I am afraid you will be disappointed, mein herr."
At that, five of the men near the vans dropped their clubs and reached into the open cargo doors. They pivoted quickly, withdrawing what at first looked like oversized rifles. When they set the recoil plates against their hips and turned the weapons toward Roland, holding them up by dual handles near the center, Hans recognized them. Assault Cannons, basically recoilless rifles that fired explosive shells. Probably the largest caliber man-portable weapon on the planet. The White Skins between them and the students quickly moved out of the line of fire.
"Goodbye, Herr Brem-"
'NO!" Hans charged forward, staying low, darting left and right as he advanced on the gunners, hoping to throw off their aim. He felt, rather than saw, two shells go past, but the third gunner to fire was either luckier, or more experienced. His shell exploded into the pavement near Hans' feet. He felt the sting on his exposed face and hands as needle-sharp bits of metal dug into his flesh. Worse, the shockwave lifted him off his feet for a second, leaving him vulnerable and unable to change direction as the last two gunners fired. Hans' world was obliterated in a flash of white light.
The first thing that returned to him was the thick taste of blood in his mouth. He tried to spit the gummy mass out of his mouth, but something was keeping him from turning his head. He coughed jerkily, and heard a grating sound close by as something pressing down on his chest shifted. It was so dark that he couldn't tell if is his eyes were open or not. The air was thick with dust. He tried to sit up, and realized with the return of bodily sensations that his arms and legs were trapped too. Fighting a rising panic, he concentrated on lifting up his right arm, ignoring the aches and pains reawakening in his chest. More grinding noises, then a clatter of what sounded like stones as the weight shifted and the pressure left his arm. He felt his fingers break into free air, and realized that he was partially buried in debris. He used his free hand to claw away some of the material above his head, as he shifted his left arm in closer to give him leverage to sit up.
Movement awakened more pain, but a claustrophobic panic was eroding his control. His right hand got hold of the corner of a large mass, and as he slid it back he finally saw something besides blackness. Finally he jerked himself upright, coughing up more dust and spitting blood. When he got his breathing back under control, he realized that the rough fragments around him were shattered cinderblocks. He slowly gathered himself and pushed more of the debris off his legs. He had to roll partly onto his left side and jam his fingers under the edge of a large section of wall to lever it up far enough for him to slide his trapped left arm out. When he was done he was filthy, bruised, and battered, but mobile and essentially in one piece. Dim light filtered in from a large jagged opening in the wall at his feet. Hans stared at it stupidly for a moment before he realized that he must have made the hole when he was thrown backward. He slowly looked down at himself.
His longcoat was gone and all that remained of his vest were some fragments of melted ferro-plast that were imbedded in the skin near his left shoulder and the upper right quadrant of his abdomen. The fragments were arranged in roughly circular patterns, and as far as he could tell they marked the impacts. Hans took a deep shuddering breath. Those losers must have been using cheap ammo. By all rights, two direct hits from those monsters should have dismembered him, if not simply pulverized him. Although his ears were still ringing, he thought he could hear screaming, and an ominous crackling sound. He lurched unsteadily to his feet and stumbled toward the light.
The front of the residential block caught his eye first. It was a solid mass of flames, with torrents of dark smoke pouring out of the windows. The screams were coming from there, but they grew fainter by the second. There was a loud bang of cannon-fire from the street, and Hans tore his eyes away from the massacre.
The corner of one of the delivery vans disappeared in a ball of flame as Roland leaped backwards off the top. Hans couldn't see any of the other students still up. Gerd was motionless in the street near the warehouse Hans had been thrown into. A spreading pool of blood under the Ork indicated that he probably wasn't getting up again. Hans shuffled into the street like a broken marionette. All of the White Skins attention was focused on bringing Roland down. Half of Gerd's head was gone. Hans kept moving, his stride getting smoother as blood returned to his legs, along with the pain.
Roland was putting on quite a show. His teacher's tunic was streaked with blood, some of it his, as he wove between the vehicles. He never gave the assault cannons a clean shot, and picked off any White Skins who came within his long reach. Hans wondered why they didn't just move them to get a clear shot, but then he noticed the signpost jutting out of the front grille of the Citymaster. The big truck wasn't going anywhere soon. Whenever the gunners spread out to cover both sides of a van, Roland would leap over it, or onto the other one. Evidently on one of these acrobatic trips he'd take the time to kick the machine guns so that one barrel was bent into the other. So far, the White Skins hadn't gotten a good hit on him yet, as much due to their own disorganization as anything. Hans could only count four gunners now, so they may have gotten one already. But Roland's luck would have to run out soon. As Roland ran between the two vans, he paused listening. Suddenly he slammed his shoulder high up into the side of the damaged one, rocking it up off its wheels. The massive troll wrapped his fingers under the splash panel and with a mighty heave flipped it over on its side. The tumbling vehicle crushed several White Skins, including one of the pair of gunners racing to cut him off. The other one however had jumped back in time. With a curse, he swung the cannon over at Roland and triggered it point-blank.
Roland got both his hands up and there was a bright flash of blue light as the round detonated, somewhat short of the target. Roland was nonetheless thrown backwards off his feet. The back of his head slammed into the side of the moribund Citymaster with a loud thump. The remaining White Skins gathered for the kill as Roland slid to his knees, dazed.
Hans was moving forward before he even realized what he was doing, adrenalin washing the grit from his joints. There was no time for grandstanding or the old Troll would be dead... for trying to save metahuman families from burning alive. One of the remaining gunners was moving up to finish Roland off, the other hanging back to cover. The big guns were too bulky to use in close quarters, and they'd learned to be wary. But not wary enough.
There was one White Skin with a pistol with the covering the closest gunner. He looked back and forth from Roland to the burning building. He didn't hear Hans come up behind him until a filthy hand clamped over his mouth, fingers digging into the jaw, as another hand gripped his shoulder. Hans broke the man's neck with one savage twist and eased the body quietly to the ground.
The Gunner in front of him didn't notice, his attention was focused on the scene in front of him. He was yelling at his comrades to stay out of the line of fire, verdammit, because he'd shoot through them if that hell-spawned Troglodyte got up again. He was cut off, literally, as Hans grabbed his cannon from behind and chopped the heel of his hand into the man's throat.
Hans felt cartilage crush and bone snap under his hand as the man spun away like a broken doll. He hauled the heavy cannon to his hip and braced the recoil pad like he'd seen the gunners do, then started firing.
Hans had decided to aim high, to minimize the chance that he might miss a target and hit Roland. This was a good thing, because he found that he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. He tried to hit the last gunner, but managed to punch a couple of holes in the side of the battered Citymaster and lace some of the remaining White Skin rabble with shrapnel. His target spun after the first explosion and fired back, but Hans had at least rattled him enough with the near misses to make him miss too.
Hans gritted his teeth and tried to correct for his last miss, which was harder than it looked with a hip-fired weapon. He pulled the firing yoke, but this time there was just a loud click. Out of ammo or jammed, it didn't make a difference. He leaped to the side as a shell transited the space where he'd been standing an instant earlier. Growling in frustration, he lifted the cannon above his head and threw it, sideways, at the last gunner, who was smoothly pivoting the barrel of his gun to line it up on Hans again.
Surprisingly enough, the barrel of Han's cannon caught him across the forehead with a sickening crunch. He slumped to the ground, and lay there, one foot twitching slightly. The remaining White Skins scattered. Hans took a deep breath and walked over to Roland.
His teacher was a mass of cuts and bruises, but his eyes were blinking rapidly and he seemed to be coming back to himself. Hans threw an arm over his shoulder and was able to help him get to his feet. He never heard the door to the City master open.
"A very impressive performance, my young friend. It is a pity you have chosen to betray your race."
Hans half-turned, still supporting a good bit of Roland's weight. A middle-aged human with aristocratic features and wavy blond hair, gone slightly grey at the temples was stepping out of the Citymaster. He was wearing a uniform of some sort, with a boxy cloth bag on a shoulder strap and a large pistol. The latter was aimed squarely between Hans' eyes.
"Do you really think that's going to do you any good? Besides waking Roland up?" He nodded toward the pistol.
The older man shrugged. 'If it is not sufficient, then I am sure this satchel charge will be." He hefted the bag and Hans felt his stomach clench. He forced himself to smile.
"You'd better hope so. Because you have no idea what I will do to you if you don't get out of here right now."
"That, my young friend, was a rather pathetic bluff."
'Is it?" Hans asked, smiling. "Take a good look at me. I haven't had a particularly good day so far, and I'd be glad to take it out on you." Something was wrong... something had changed. He realized that the screaming had stopped. He glanced at the burning building.
"Ah... Well, you are not having as bad a day as some, it would seem. Shocking how slow Emergency Services is in getting here, isn't it? Of course, it's even more surprising how far a few Deutschmarks will go when bribing telecom admins to mis-route a few calls. A pity."
As Hans watched and the horrified realization broke We're too late, they're all dead. There was a low rumble and loud snapping noise as the roof slowly collapsed inward.
'Young man, you are interfering with things far beyond you. There are powers at work that will see this nation cleansed. Working with us will guarantee your future. Working against us is sealing your own doom... and you don't look that foolish to me, eh?"
Hans turned back around, tears starting to blur his vision. He had failed again... innocent people were hurt, this time dead, because he had failed. His imagination, normally fairly active, was working overtime now. He saw children dying screaming in the fire. He saw mothers trying to protect them and failing. He saw all of them dying in his mind's eye. Dying because he had failed.
Hans looked at the man who had masterminded their deaths. He had failed, but this man had worked to get them killed. Lusted after their slaughter. Hans eased Roland off his shoulder and took a step forward.
When he saw Hans' face, Hoffman flinched back. Those eyes... it was like looking into hell. Or watching hell look at you. He hadn't even realized he was stepping back until he stumbled into the steps that led up into the Citymaster. Roland was standing unsteadily on his own while Hans deliberately took one step after another towards him. He raised his pistol unsteadily.
Hans was moving even before he fired. He blurred to the side as he dove forward, and the bullet raised a welt of burned skin on top of his shoulder. Hans closed his fingers around the wrist above the gun and deliberately crushed it to pulp. Grinding the torn muscle and bone chips together even after the pistol had dropped from nerveless fingers. He saw the fingers of the free hand fluttering toward the top of the shoulder bag. "Roland!" He yelled, "get clear!"
Hoffman's hand plunged into the bag, his face twisted in a mixture of terror and pain. From the corner of his eye, Hans saw Roland clambering over the overturned van. Hans released the ruined wrist, even as he pivoted into a spinning roundhouse kick. He bent his supporting leg into a deep squat then straightened it as he spun. The kick angled upward into the side of Hoffman's hip like a thunderbolt and Hans leaped backwards arching over the van himself. Hoffman's hip shattered like fine porcelain and he was catapulted upward and into the entryway of the Citymaster. His left hand closed around the detonator as he slammed into the interior wall with bone-crunching force.
Hans was still in the air when the explosion split the Citymaster open like a tin can, and the shockwave carried him well over the second van and almost into the burning residential complex. Half-stunned, he barely managed to not land on his head. After a moment, he was able to sit up, then stand. Roland was looking up from behind the over-turned van.
As he'd hoped, going off inside the reinforced hull of the Citymaster had damped down a lot of the explosion's force. Of course, it hadn't done the Citymaster a bit of good. All that was left of it was a twisted chassis sitting in it's own funeral pyre. He stumbled over to Roland. The Troll had never looked older than when he looked back from the burning building and shook his head.
The trip back took considerably longer, both due to lack of urgency, and their injuries. Neither of them spoke. When they returned to the warehouse, the door was slightly ajar and the troll child was gone.
Hans laid awake for most of the night. He was battered and sore, but it was his emotional turmoil that was really keeping him up. He re-played the battle over and over again, trying to figure out how he might have done it right. He almost welcomed the pain when he started digging the melted armor fragments out of his torso. None had penetrated very deeply, but they still required some work with a knife and tweezers to get them out. And anything he felt was a pale reflection of what had happened to the people he had failed. Burned alive in their own homes...
After a couple of hours of restless slumber, Roland woke him. Hans sat up, took a deep breath and reluctantly looked up at Roland. His teacher was similarly a mass of bruises, and it looked like he had spent no small amount of time with a medi-kit as well.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Hans sighed, and shrugged. "Not much to talk about is there? I screwed up. People died."
"You sound as if you are responsible."
"I am. I went off half-cocked. Got knocked out. By the time I came to, it was too late for those poor bastards."
"Ah, so it was all up to you, was it?"
Hans paused. "No... but I should have been able to stop it. Do something."
"Hans, the ones who are truly responsible are those despicable racists who set the fire. I've had run-ins with Hoffman before. He was waiting for us... this was a very elaborate trap, with bait we could not refuse. Effectively, those people were dead the minute the White Skins arrived. Consider it fate, if you will..."
"No! I cannot accept that!"
"What should you have done, then?"
"I don't know... maybe flanked around, not charged right at the gunners. Been a little smarter... something!"
Roland sighed. "Hans, that distraction when you charged them is the only reason we were not all cut down on the spot. Understand this, boy, Hoffman was waiting for us. He knew approximately how many students I had. He had a fair idea of my abilities. It was a good plan until you panicked the gunners. By the time they had hit you, I was on top of the Citymaster and about half of the students had taken cover." The troll smiled faintly, if painfully. "They fought well."
"Not well enough." Hans growled.
Roland frowned. "They died bravely and well, trying to save others. There are far worse ways to die."
"But those people still died. No better than if we had never even shown up...We failed."
"Not entirely. The White Skins will not boast of this victory, and Hoffman was a powerful man, in addition to being a despicable racist. The world is a better place with him gone. And you did save my life, at least."
Hans looked up, but said nothing.
"If you choose to assume responsibility for everything bad that happens around you, I can guarantee you a miserable, guilt-ridden life. The ones truly responsible for that atrocity are dead, due in no small part to your actions. Those you cannot save, you can at least sometimes avenge. Sometimes that has to be enough."
"It isn't." Hans took the folded credstick printouts out of his duffel bag and handed them to Roland. Roland quickly scanned through them.
"This is pretty bad... is this why you wanted to train?"
"It's part of the reason. I can't keep operating on reflexes and luck. I need to know what I am doing. I've got a little more than a week left now... but I'm starting to think that this is just delusions of grandeur on my part. I couldn't save one person in that apartment complex... what makes me think I will do any better next time?" Hans shrugged, looking defeated.
Roland's brows knitted together. "Having aspirations isn't foolish. Wallowing in doubt and self-pity, on the other hand... Get the hell up off that cot!"
Hans looked up, but did not move. The backhand blow from Roland was as stunning as it was unexpected. Hans skidded to a stop near the middle of the training area. As he climbed to his feet, Roland stalked toward him, a faint blue shimmer outlining his bulk. The troll wasn't shouting, but his words reverberated in the empty warehouse and made Hans' bruises ache, "I will need to return to my people soon, to bring word of Hoffman's actions, as well as seek allies for what is to come. You have a little more than a week. I can take the next six days to teach you as much as I can... but if you give up on me I will make it feel like six months, do I make myself clear?"
Hans dropped into a ready stance. "Yes Teacher!" he shouted back.
By request, I've posted everything I've written on poor Hans. (I actually wrote this a couple of years ago… possibly as part of a hand-out for someone researching the character's background.)
From the responses I'm getting, going forward I'll be focusing most of my time on the Blackwand Chronicles until they are done. However, I do know where this story is going, so I can get it done eventually. )
PS – Bonus Points (or your name used for a character) if anyone can email me with Hans' secret.