WARNING: This chapter may contain subject matter that is far too violent or disturbing to certain readers. Read at your own risk.

CH 4: Broken

The pain was unbearable. With each movement he happened to make, the injured muscles in his body screamed their protest, his toes curling inward amidst his anguish as the smell of burning flesh pervaded his senses and sent his innards roiling with discontent.

Was he dying? Everything felt just so out of touch with reality…

"Vagrant Mugen" a deep voice bellowed from abaft, "You will hereby be granted full entry to the brotherhood of the Rebels if, and only if you complete the test of your endurance, strength, and inestimable loyalty."

Mugen longed to return the gesture with a despiteful 'fuck you', yet he was by far too tired due to being starved and abused for the past three days.

Seizing the Ryukyuan by the hair, the leading Rebel (who later turned out to be named Iori) brought his branding iron to the expanse of flesh in between Mugen's shoulder blades and pressed it forcefully against his skin. Releasing a deranged howl, Mugen bit his lip with the hopes of somehow dissolving the pain, blood now dribbling down over his stubbled chin in accordance with his bite as he bowed his head and tried his damndest to show that he was still the stronger man.

Just when Mugen thought the torture had finally ceased, however, twenty other Rebels formed a tight circle around him and began to kick and spit on his naked body as if he were nothing but worthless trash. Every now and then he would feel the additional sting of a whip against his flesh, but he knew far better than to counterattack.

After viciously kicking Mugen in the face, Iori motioned for the other men to hold the Ryukyuan down, the leading Rebel smirking malevolently as he turned his attention to his tattered trousers.

Grunting, Mugen desperately tried to squirm free of the hundreds of hands holding him in place, beads of sweat accumulating along his brow once he felt Iori take him by the legs and sadistically thrust them apart.

"Hold still, my friend…this'll only hurt a bit" Iori assured him, thus causing Mugen to stiffen.

This wasn't worth it…what the hell had he done?

Now feeling Iori in between his thighs, Mugen frantically tried to move, only to receive a tremendous blow to the head. Dazedly struggling to see, the Ryukyuan face-planted into the dirt as a deep blanket of darkness swirled across his eyes and enveloped him within its compassionate embrace.

"MUGEN!"

The Ryukyuan jolted awake, his chest heaving as his wide eyes darted up to meet with those of his frightened companion.

"Mugen" Fuu entreated yet again, "who's Iori? You were talking in your sleep…"

The vagrant paled before stubbornly pushing her to the side. "Get away from me" he urged, his tone gruff, yet completely broken. "I was just havin' a nightmare, 's all, so just leave me the hell alone."

"But you're shaking" Fuu persisted, the soft and haunting look within her eyes causing Mugen's heart to clench. For a second there, he actually thought she might've cared.

Instead of giving in to her incessant pestering, however, the Ryukyuan sourly rolled over on his bedroll and squeezed his eyes tightly closed, the crackling of the fire behind them only fueling the unwanted memories within his heart…

"Hold 'im steady! This one's a fighter."

"But sir, don'tcha think he's had enough already? You've already done so much to 'im that it's a miracle he can even walk!"

Iori stiffened, the malice within his coal black eyes silencing his lackey in an instant. "If I say 'hold 'im steady', you'd better damn well hold 'im steady!"

Wincing, the other Rebel nodded before dragging Mugen's limp and blooded pulp of a body into the center of the camp. Before them was the entire village's fire, Iori grinning inhumanely as he reached for his branding iron and placed it into the voracious flames.

Mugen watched all of this with a bleary eye, the tremendous loss of blood and pulsating of his injuries truly leaving him with the feeling that he had just died and gone straight to hell.

'What was so frickin' great about bein' a Rebel, anyway?' he wondered, the buzzing in his head only intensifying as he watched the bonfire crackle. 'Is the idea of bein' in the most feared and powerful group in Japan really worth all this bullshit?'

As the Ryukyuan continued to contemplate this, he found himself completely caught off-guard the moment a hot, sharp pain seared across the burning flesh of his left buttock.

While Mugen voiced his tremendous anguish, Iori cruelly remarked from behind, "Congratulations, vagrant, for you have passed the final test. Now that you are officially a Rebel, you may look upon these brands and scars with triumph and pride, for few have actually withstood them." Now motioning for his men to help the Ryukyuan to his feet, Iori folded his arms and smirked before showing the men to his lean-to. "The vagrant can sleep here tonight…if there are any objections to his being a Rebel, you can take it up with me, personally."

With a succession of firm negations, Iori's lackeys dragged Mugen to the front of the hut before carelessly tossing his beaten body inside. Landing against the earth with a harsh 'thud', Mugen wearily curled up into the fetal position amidst his pain and closed his eyes. Something told him that after dealing with those bastards, it was going to be a long road to recovery…

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Ayame hummed to herself as she continued to close up her shop, her long, fawn-brown hair falling into her line of vision as she bent over and picked up the remnants of a broken teacup. Some days her customers could be so rowdy, and now that Fuu was no longer there to help her…

The young woman sighed. What was the use in even thinking thoughts that would get her nowhere? She'd just need to find new help, and that was that.

Just as she turned to throw the shards out, several men bedecked in robes of various shades of purple stepped in front of her like a human blockade.

"I'm sorry" Ayame apologized, "But as you can see, I'm currently closed. I don't serve customers after ten o' clock, but if you come back tomorrow, I can-"

"We are not here for tea, madam" Kourumi remarked, his lips curling upward into a vicious sneer as his ebony irises slid over toward Jin and the other vassals. "The Shogun has requested your cooperation in levying information on a certain girl…Kasumi Fuu, to be exact."

At this admission Ayame tried her best to mask her shock, yet the fear in her large eyes deceived her. "I…I know of no such girl" she assured them in a steady voice. "The kind man next door, however, might know of some good-"

"Do you know the punishment for those who are disloyal to members of the Shogun!?" Kourumi snapped, thus causing Ayame to cringe. When she meekly shook her head 'no' he continued, "To anyone who is lucky enough to be spared of death, they are immediately escorted into town in preparation for their immeasurable torture. From there they are tied up to a delightful post, beaten, branded, and cut up limb from limb. Now I would just hate to have to mar the face of such a lovely young woman, but believe me, my dear, I have harmed far lovelier."

At this confession Ayame gasped, her honey-brown eyes swimming with unshed tears as she clutched the folds of her apron in between her fingers and stubbornly looked away. "I apologize, sir, but I'm afraid that I can be of no help to you and your men."

"And is that because you can't or you won't?" Kourumi demanded, his cheeks growing considerably flushed in accordance with his anger.

Blinking back her tears, Ayame allowed the folds of her apron to fall from her grasp, and along with it her fear. Now raising her gaze defiantly up to meet with the roju's, she returned, "Tokugawa-sama, I am very sorry, but you and your men have officially worn out your welcome. I've tried to be courteous, but you have proven to be both uncouth and priggishly forceful, so if you continue to harass me I will be left with no other choice than to report you to the emperor."

Kourumi appeared to be genuinely stunned by Ayame's remark at first, yet once the full effect of her words finally sank in, he released a full and hearty laugh. "My dear child" he mockingly began, "do you honestly believe that the emperor would give two figs about your well-being, let alone trust your word over mine? You're nothing but a worthless peasant girl!"

"A peasant I may be" Ayame agreed, "but worthless I am not. If there's anyone in this very room who's a waste of Kami's creation, it's you!"

Jin watched this heated display with both an inner calm and slight trepidation, his gaze narrowing toward his master as Kourumi's eyes nearly bulged straight out of their sockets.

"Why you insolent little girl!" he roared. "I should have you executed right on the spot for such treason-like behavior!"

With a forceful snap of the fingers, Kourumi's vassals raced forward and took hold of the spiteful Ishida Ayame, but not without a good fight. Jin, however, felt as if his sandaled feet were glued straight to the floor while this travesty went on.

He didn't completely snap out of his guilt-ridden stupor until the fleshy sound of Kourumi's palm striking Ayame's cheek pervaded his senses as if he, himself had been slapped, his voice rigid and cold as he remarked, "Forgive me for saying so, Tokugawa-sama, but according to my teachings, women are sacred treasures never to be harmed nor touched. If you value what it is you wish her to speak, please only deal with her in a calm and genteel manner."

Kourumi snorted. "And a great deal of help that's been, thus far! I shall do with her as a please, Jin-san, and don't you forget that!" Now turning his attention over toward his vassals he instructed, "Take the girl back to the holding cell – I'd like to continue our little interrogation at a later date. And you" he hissed, referring to Jin, "you I will deal with later."

Exhaling deeply, Jin watched his overseer storm off in the direction of the temple, the vassals carrying Ayame promptly panting after him like a pack of mindless lapdogs.

'And lapdogs they will always be' Jin thought, shaking his head before redirecting his gaze up toward the lavender sky. 'Oh, Kami, forgive me, for I know not what I've done…'

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When Fuu awoke, she found her hazy gaze resting upon a blurry red blob, her foggy mind soon coming to the comprehension that it was only Mugen.

Slowly rising from her bedroll, she felt an odd sensation coiling within her chest due to noting the Ryukyuan's dejected stature, her eyes softening once she realized that his vulnerability very much resembled that of her own at age fifteen. The world had been a very dark and scary place to her back then, but at least she had always had Mugen and Jin there to protect her. Now that Mugen seemed to be the one in hiding, however, who would protect him?

Swallowing her pride, Fuu abandoned her position by the campfire and gingerly approached his sullen form, Mugen's voice cutting through her like a dull blade once he demanded, "Why you tryin' a' sneak around back there like that, Fuu? If you're comin' over here, just go ahead an' do it."

Biting her lip, Fuu slowly allowed herself the comfort of sitting down in the grass beside him, her eyes chancing being caught as they slid along the Ryukyuan's rough visage and rook in the pain of his overall aura. He seemed so lost…so sad.

As if seeming to read her mind, Mugen cast his gaze up toward the moon and allowed a wistful sheen to pass across his eyes, his tone soft and reverent as he mumbled, "On nights like these, I just can't help but think a' the people I've wronged, ya know? Bein' a Rebel's made me look like a saint when I was with you an' Four Eyes, but believe it or not, that shit don't scare me, anymore. I'm ready if they're ready for me."

Fuu's eyes widened in surprise. "Mugen, how can you say such things? I-I know you, and you are a good man!"

Mugen threw his head back in a sour laugh devoid of all mirth, his gaze now cold and somber as he returned, "Fuu, you don't know shit about me. I may've traveled alongside ya for nearly a year, but I betcha that you didn't know you were travelin' with a cold-blooded killer, now didja?"

"Of course I did! We all make mistakes, Mugen!" Fuu insisted, by now beyond discomforted by the direction that their conversation had taken. "I may've been afraid of you at first, but overtime I saw that you had a good heart!"

Mugen gave her a long and hard look then, a slight warble reflecting within his voice as he snarled, "Yeah? Well since then I've murdered a little kid, Fuu. Still think I'm so wonderful and heaven-sent?"

"Mugen" Fuu whispered, her eyes wide, "you did what?"

"Yeah, that's what I thought" he muttered disdainfully in return, no longer able to look her in the eye as he rose from his perch and stalked back over toward the campsite in a huff.

Fuu followed his rapidly retreating form with fear in her eyes, her heart feeling like molten lead once she finally realized the gravity of the situation. Somehow, someway, they had broken Mugen's spirit completely…

A/N: Whew, sorry for the long wait, but all of these scenes were hard to get through! I don't know what it is about me and writing dramatic tragedies, but I'm drawn to them like a moth to the flame. :) And I don't think the whole torture scene was too graphic/bad, but I figured I'd just give a warning just in case. Anywhos, reviews would be GREATLY appreciated, especially since I'm a poor college student who only thrives off of simple pleasures such as those. LoL And besides, reviews make me write more, meaning faster updates! Love you guys! ;0)