Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Lillia and Treize III(Part 2): My Prince - Chapter 6


(Download the updated version in PDF/epub format here.)

Let's begin the final volume of the Lillia and Treize series.

  






Lillia Schultz: 16 years old. A fourth-year secondary school student who lives in the Capital District of the Roxcheanuk Confederation. Her mother is Allison, and her father is the late Wilhelm Schultz. Lillia’s specialties are Bezelese and flying. Her full name is extremely long.

Allison Schultz: 35 years old. She is a captain in the Roxcheanuk Confederation Air Force. Allison currently works as a test pilot, and lives with her daughter Lillia in an apartment in the Capital District. She is still a heavy sleeper.

Major Travas: 35 years old. He is part of the Royal Army of the Allied Kingdoms of Bezel-Iltoa. He is a military attaché who works in the embassy, and is part of the intelligence agency—in other words, he is a spy. Major Travas is currently Allison’s boyfriend, but in reality—

Treize: 17 years old. He is the son of Queen Francesca and Sir Benedict. Although Treize was supposed to be a prince of Iks, certain circumstances prevented him from claiming royal status. He and his twin sister Meriel are constantly arguing over who the older one is. Treize and Lillia are childhood friends, though she doesn’t know his true identity.

Queen Francesca(Fiona)&Benedict: 38 and 42 years old, respectively. Francesca(Fiona) is the current Queen of Ikstova, and Benedict her husband is the Hero of the Mural. They are currently living a relaxed life in Iks.

Princess Matilda: 20 years old. She is the eldest daughter of the royal family of Bezel, and will one day become queen. She comes to Roxche on an official visit, but…


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Chapter 6: We are Not Murderers


-----


The sun had traveled more than halfway across the sky. Work on separating the cars continued.

The engineer and the driver separated the train between the first class passenger car and the dining car. The two middle-aged railroad workers had no idea about the earlier commotion because they had been busy running the train from the locomotive.

They exchanged shocked glances when they heard the news, but they followed Cohen’s directions and got to work, confused.

First, they peeled off the connecting cover around the coupling and pulled back the footboard. Then they separated the electric cables and the pneumatic tubes. Finally, they unscrewed the connector and unhooked the ring.

In the meantime, Major Travas’s team was standing warily on the tracks. The passengers, forbidden to leave the cars, remained inside.

Once the train was divided,

“Finished. Now we can continue.”

“Excellent. Keep your radio turned on; we’ll contact you if we need anything.”

The engineer and the driver spoke with Cohen for a moment, before returning to the locomotive.

Major Travas personally checked that the trains had been separated, before turning to Cohen.

“I’d like for you to remain on the other train. Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Cohen. We’ll contact you by radio.”

Cohen made no attempt to hide his anger.

“This is outrageous! I don’t care who you are or what you’re doing—this is unacceptable!”

Major Travas simply replied,

“We don’t care.”


In the second class passenger car, filled with partitioned seats.

“Hey, it looks like they’re gone.” The soldier, who had been leaning out the window, reported. The three-car train in his sights slowly departed.

Most of the train’s passengers were gathered in this car.

They weren’t particularly obligated to, but the passengers seemed to be in silent agreement that they would stay away from the second class sleeper cars.

They had left their suitcases and trunks in the cabins, and were sitting in the uncomfortable seats. In a corner sat two waiters and a cook, all three of them with nothing to do.

Only the stern old man and his secretary remained in their cabin, two cars ahead.

The bodies of the couple had been placed in the cabin where they had stayed.


“What is going on here?” The saleswoman groaned from near the middle of the car.

“What’s going to happen to us now?” The suit-clad man wondered, as if to himself. The doctor—with his medical bag at his feet—replied.

“I suppose we’ll all be investigated by the police once we reach the next station… in any event, this really is a bother. When will we be free to go?”

“Argh… I have an important meeting in Lor tomorrow afternoon. I should have taken an aeroplane… what do I do…?” The suit-clad man agonized, holding his head in his hands.

No one answered. No one knew what to say.

“Right… it’s all right as long as we don’t have any more killers or suspicious suits in this train… count my blessings…” The man finally concluded, perhaps having given up.

Ten minutes passed with nothing being done.

The train shook. Some flinched, but someone quickly explained that a locomotive had been connected to their train.

Soon, three men in Confederation Rail uniforms boarded the car.

One was Cohen the conductor. Of the others, one was young and the other was middle-aged.

Both the newcomers seemed confused by the unforeseen circumstances, but their expressions worsened when they saw the upset passengers.

“We’ve contacted the police at Azay Station. Passengers, please bear with us until we reach the station. We’ve also ordered the maintenance crew to search for the student and the baby. This train will soon be departing. We will arrive at Azay Station in less than three hours, before sunset.” Said Cohen.

“Right…”

“I see.”

The passengers were unenthusiastic.

Several minutes after Cohen and the men left, the train began to move. With two corpses and many tired passengers onboard, the train missing two cars left the depot.

It twisted across several junctions before moving into the main line.

And it once more headed north.


* * *


Inside the first train ahead, Major Travas’s team were holding a strategy meeting.

Everyone but Ann—who was in Hilda’s cabin—was in the first class sleeper car corridor and the adjoining cabins, which were now part of the last car of the train. They focused their sights outside, keeping a close eye on their surroundings.

All of them had assault rifles slung over their shoulders. In their suit pockets were spare magazines. They were ready for a shootout.

The conversation took place over radio, so Ann could also participate. And it all took place in Bezelese.

“We have a leak.” Said Major Travas.

The four men in the corridor and the cabins nodded gravely.

“We did not inform Roxche about this train. Which unfortunately means the leak is from our side. I will suspend judgement for the time being.” Major Travas said. “But what we can be sure of now is that someone is attempting to harm the lady. And that this someone somehow knows about us.”

“Sounds serious.” Said Uno.

“Seriously. It’s more than the major’s head on the line here.” Yzma joked. No one laughed or got angry. And though Yzma had called him ‘major’ and not ‘leader’, no one scolded him.


<Seriously. It’s more than the major’s head on the line here.>

When Gratz Axentine heard Yzma’s joke, she silently looked outside. She saw nothing but a vast brown field, the monotony sometimes broken by clumps of trees.


“Now that we’re no longer incognito, there’s no advantage in working as a small team.” Ozette said from the hallway. Major Travas agreed.

“What about the fake couple? What’s your take on them, Major?” Asked Yzma.

“They were throwaway pawns from the beginning. They likely had no idea about the lady.”

“Then is the mastermind really the one who poisoned them? Why would the couple even trust the mastermind and take those unknown drugs? They had no idea who the mastermind was.”

“The poison was in capsules. The mastermind probably told them that the capsules were antidotes to the poison, in case the couple accidentally had one of the poisoned lunches. He could tell them to take the capsules at a designated time.” Major Travas theorized without missing a beat.

“So… the other train breaking down, the angry passengers demanding to board this one, the death of the student, and the commotion in the dining car were all his doing?” Said Yzma.

“If…” Uno began, unconsciously scratching his short-cropped hair. “If Ms. Schultz hadn’t stopped the man while he was panicking, the passengers would have turned against us the moment the couple died. Everyone who ate the lunches would have lost their minds. We would have been powerless to bring the situation under control.”

“So we’re dealing with a smart fellow here. He even expected us to hand out lunches.” Said Ozette.

“He thinks like us.” Ed muttered. Major Travas agreed.

“This mastermind—or someone under his control—is among the passengers. And we have no way of knowing who he is until he makes a move. He’s surely prepared a plan B, C, or more, and depending on the way things go he will set the backups into motion.”

“In that case, everyone is looking pretty suspicious right about now.” Said Yzma. “Oh. Except for the Schultz family, of course.”

“The trains have been separated, and we’re not likely to face any more obstacles. But don’t let your guard down. Azay Station is close to the Lutoni. There’s a highway across the river from there. We will procure a vehicle and cross via the bridge.” Major Travas explained their plan.

“Then it looks like Prince Treize won’t be joining us, being Roxchean. Too bad.” Uno noted.

“Yes. But…” Major Travas trailed off, after voicing his agreement.

“Is something bothering you, leader?” Asked Ozette. Major Travas sounded uncharacteristically uncertain.

“Yes. Something’s been bugging me. Is this really the right course of action? I get the feeling that I’m overlooking something.”

“That’s not a good attitude for the leader to have.” Uno pointed out.

Major Travas apologized, then ordered,

“All right, men. Remain vigilant until we reach the next station. Destroy all obstacles with force.”


At that point, the train was headed for a certain junction.

The tracks leading north forked, branching off into a set of tracks heading northwest. The train moved at 80 kilometers an hour towards that point.

Naturally, the train passed the junction in the blink of an eye, continuing north.

The train headed into the horizon, shrank into a speck in the distance, and disappeared. At that moment—

“It’s gone!”

“Let’s get started.”

Two people appeared from next to the still-rumbling tracks.

They were wearing brown camouflage clothes with hoods over their heads, and cloth of a similar color wrapped around their faces. They were also covered in leaves. Because they had been lying on their stomachs in the grass until the train had passed, they were completely indistinguishable from the scenery. From their voices and builds they were clearly men.

The men climbed onto the gravel-covered rails and approached the junction. One of them swung an axe at the cable connected to the mechanism.

“Hah!”

He cut off the train’s means of communicating with the operations office. The other man pushed the massive junction lever.

Clunk. There was a loud metallic noise as the junction was switched, so the next train from the south would be railroaded toward the northwest.

“Perfect. Let’s go!”

“Right!”

The men then sprinted for the woods, about 150 meters away.

Behind the grove, hidden from sight, was a car.

It was a small four-wheel drive car used both by civilians and the military. The canvas roof was open. The antenna was broken, secured to the frame of the windshield.

The men stepped inside. The man on the left-side seat—the driver’s seat—started the car.

The car drove into a dirt road. The road ran parallel with the tracks for about 100 meters.

The car sped north, just as the train had earlier.

The man in the passenger seat spoke into the radio installed in the car.

<This is the junction team. Main crew, respond.>

<Main crew. Well?> A man replied. They were all speaking Roxchean.

The man in the passenger seat could scarcely hide his excitement.

<Success! The train’s passed, just as scheduled! It’s all moving along splendidly! We’ve switched the junction. Even if the operations office doesn’t notice, the next train won’t crash into this one.>

<Excellent. We will commence the operation. See you soon.>

The car sped up even more after the communications. A bolt-action sniper rifle equipped with a scope, wrapped in a sleeping bag, shook in the trunk.


* * *


Inside the train about thirty minutes behind the one carrying Major Travas.

In the second class passenger car, where the passengers sat languidly.

“We need to talk.” Lillia said, gesturing to Treize.

She was standing in front of the door to the doorway. Treize got up and followed her. They stepped out into the doorway together.

From her seat, Allison watched them leave. She yawned.


Making sure no one was around, Lillia pushed Treize towards the door.

“Whoa…”

He felt the door against his back.

“What’s wrong?” Treize asked. Lillia was serious.

“Are you kidding? The date.”

“What?” Treize blurted, a hint of excitement in his voice.

“Mom and Major Travas’s date.”

“…Oh.” Treize nodded, quickly brought back to reality. Lillia continued without a care for his disappointment.

“They were planning to go on a date in Lor after this job, weren’t they? Mom never would have decided to come this far otherwise.”

“I guess so. I don’t know the details, but the major’s escort mission is supposed to end once he sees off Hilda at Lor…”

“But that’s not happening now, is it?!”

“Huh? Oh. Right. Since we’ll have to spend the night at the next station.” Treize nodded. Lillia glared at him.

“Can’t you do something about this? I don’t care if it’s a day late. Mom and I are gonna be in Lor until the 29th.”

“How am I supposed to help…?”

“You’re the their guide, right? Don’t you have their contact information? They’re supposed to pay you, so you should know how to get in touch, right?”

Treize shook his head.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. Even if I knew how to contact them, they’re going to—”

They would get a car at the next station and immediately cross the Lutoni, Treize was about to say. But he stopped.

At that moment, the door into the car opened and someone entered the doorway. Lillia turned cautiously.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to disturb you.” The man said reflexively in Bezelese. But he quickly realized his mistake and switched to Roxchean. “I will not bother.”

“It’s all right.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Treize and Lillia replied in Bezelese. The man’s eyes turned to dinner plates.

“Well, who would’ve guessed? You two speak Bezelese!”

“It’s part of the job description.”

“Yeah.”

Treize and Lillia replied.

“Marvelous! I’m a traveler; you have no idea how hard it was getting around Roxche, since no one speaks any Bezelese around here. Just wanted to know—what in the world is going on here? First the train breaks down and we switch trains, and then these people die coughing up blood… is this common in Roxche?” The man asked, almost sounding enthusiastic.

Lillia glared. Treize responded.

“Not at all. This whole situation is very complicated. I’m sure the police will explain everything later.”

“I see. …You were with the other group, weren’t you? Is it all right for you to be here?”

“I was kicked out. I’m just a guide from Ikstova—I have nothing to do with their actual business.”

“I see. I’m sorry to hear that.” The man said, and moved away. “By the way, do you know where I could find the bathroom? Isn’t it supposed to be in the doorway?”

It was in the last car, Lillia replied.

“I see. Excuse me. I suppose I must’ve gotten my Roxchean mixed up.”

With that, the long-haired man winked and disappeared back into the car.


* * *


The train carrying Major Travas was traveling parallel to a canal.

The canal was on the left side of the train—the western side—and was about 20 meters in width.

The tracks had been laid along the old canal. The only other thing of note was that the plains seemed to continue to the ends of the earth.

The area was once used for farming, but during the Great War half a century earlier, the locals were displaced and the fields became plains.

After the armistice, the area was declared a high-risk zone, occupied only by the military outposts dotting the region. Even now, when there was little chance of another war, these completely undeveloped lands remained unoccupied.


Inside the VIP cabin, Hilda was dozing off on the sofa. A gentle light shone from beyond the thin curtains, setting her golden hair aglow. Ann stood to the side of the room, keeping an eye on her.

Yzma was outside the cabin, guarding the corridor. Major Travas stood at the front end of the corridor.

Uno, Ozette, and Ed were keeping watch on the train’s surroundings from the first class car. They all made sure to keep up regular communications.

The sun had fallen quite far, but there was still over an hour left until dusk. Sunlight glittered off the surface of the canal by the tracks.

<All clear here. Business as usual. Hope nothing else happens now. …Actually, if this was a film something’s bound to happen right about now. End transmission.>

Yzma had just given a laid-back report.

<Th-this is the locomotive—>

The driver’s frantic voice spoke from Major Travas’s earpiece and the radios next to every team member.

<What’s going on?> Said Major Travas.

<A truck—there’s a truck stopped on the tracks! I’m pulling the emergency brake!>


“Figures.” Yzma cringed, regretting what he had just said.

“…”

Ann grimaced as she watched the sleeping Hilda.

<I’m afraid we can’t stop.> Major Travas replied quickly. <Slow down the train slightly and continue onward. This train is more than strong enough enough to clear it from the tracks.>

<Right, sir.> The driver replied.


<Right, sir.>

The driver in the locomotive replied quickly, before exchanging glances with the engineer.

They were both smiling.

“Heh.”

“Hah hah hah.”

Outside the windshield, about 500 meters ahead on the tracks, was a mid-sized truck with a canvassed bed.

“We’re gonna be rich. We’ll be filthy, stinkin’ rich!”

The driver howled with bloodshot eyes as he reached for the brake handle. And he pulled it without a second thought.


Major Travas felt the emergency brake kick in and contacted the locomotive again.

<Do not stop the train.>

The driver replied in a mocking voice.

<Too bad, sucker! We don’t take orders from you now!>

“So they were in on this… I should’ve known.” Major Travas hissed, having understood his position.

The wheels screeched as the train slowed down.

Hilda opened her eyes. Ann caught her before she could fall forward.

<Looks like they pulled one over on us.> Yzma snickered.

<Hm. Looks like we’ll be getting quite a bit of mileage from our training. Ed. Do you see anything on the canal side?> Said Ozette.

<No.> Ed replied.

The train grew slower and slower. And it finally came to a stop with a loud thunk.

There were about 50 meters to the truck.


<Ann, protect the lady. Yzma, remain in the cabin and check the canal. Everyone else, keep your eyes on the right side of the train.> Major Travas ordered, and entered the VIP room beside him—the one Treize had used.

<Multiple persons sighted on the right. Vehicles, too.> Uno reported.

“I knew it.”

Major Travas peered out between the curtains.

On the plains—dotted with snow and still without a spot of green—stood human figures.

People were scattered on the ground about 7 or 8 kilometers from the tracks. There were about 20 of them.

About 100 meters behind the men were the two small four-wheel-drive cars they had come by. One of them was occupied by two people.

All of this was clearly visible under the sunlight.

<Confirmed.> Major Travas said. The next report came in.

<Two men running from the locomotive. Running toward the group.>

Major Travas glanced to his left.

Just as Ed explained, the engineer and the driver had abandoned the train and their careers and were splashing across the muddy ground.


Major Travas picked up the assault rifle he had left in the cabin. He loaded the magazine and loaded the first round.

<Hold fire.>

The unfolded rifle was in his right hand. With his left he pressed the call button for his microphone.

<If they approach us, you may fire at will. But that doesn’t seem too likely.>

Once the escaped engineer and the driver had joined the men on the field, the right side of the train was completely still. The people lying on their stomachs on the ground remained where they were, showing no sign of movement.

“Good for us, then.”

Inside a first class cabin, Uno had moved the sofa from beside the window. He pushed his suitcase against the window frame.

Then he opened the suitcase. He propped up the lid with a pair of metal pipes.

The suitcase was large and looked no different from ordinary models. But inside were not changes of clothes or souvenirs.

Fastened to the inside of the lid with a leather band was a folded assault rifle. It was a backup in case something happened to the first.

Organized neatly inside the suitcase were over thirty magazines. Ammunition glinted from the ends of the magazines.

Next to the magazines was a wooden box containing a dozen grenades—pins secured with tape—arranged delicately like a box of eggs.

Finally, there was a Sou Be-Il military-issue helmet, complete with ear flaps.

“‘Be ready for anything’. It was worth dragging this thing around.”

Uno pulled the helmet over his head and quickly but gingerly began to peel the tapes off the grenades.


Inside the VIP cabin, Axe opened up the two suitcases she had dragged over from the corner. She propped up the lids just as Uno had in the other cabin.

Inside the suitcases were small helmets and several military-issue bulletproof vests. It was a chilling sight.

“Excuse me, Your Highness.” Ann said, quickly putting a vest and a helmet on Hilda. “We’re terribly sorry. Please, don’t move.”

“I see something unfortunate must be happening.” Hilda said calmly, ducking as Ann instructed. Ann responded as calmly as she could, though she could not completely hide the shaking of her voice.

“Yes, ma’am.”

She then used the spare vests to cover Hilda’s legs.


<You, the group on the train. We want to talk to your leader. I repeat. We want to talk to your leader. Do you hear me? Respond immediately.> An unfamiliar voice said through the earpieces.

“Hm? Aha. Nice of ‘em to go to the trouble of contacting us.” Yzma muttered, scanning the canal side of the train with his assault rifle at the ready.

Major Travas replied to the message through the same channel that they had earlier used with the locomotive.

<I’m the leader. I will listen to what you have to say. Who are you?>

<Heh. Let’s just say I’m the representative of the team that’s surrounding you.>

The man replied condescendingly. His voice did not sound very old. He was probably not yet middle-aged. He continued.

<We have your train surrounded.>

Yzma burst out laughing.

“Whoa! Which third-rate play did he get that line from?”

Amidst his own laughter, however, Yzma made sure that no one was on the canal side—that the surface of the water remained entirely undisturbed.

<We will give you a chance to surrender. Drop your weapons and step out of the train, and we will spare your lives.>

<What is your purpose? Why did you target us?> Asked Major Travas.

<We want the load of gold bars you’re transporting.> The man replied confidently. Major Travas sighed, exasperated.

<First it’s jewels, and now it’s bars of gold. We’re dealing with a bunch of idiots here.> Yzma commented. Uno followed up.

<But they’re surprisingly well-prepared. The mastermind got them hook, line, and sinker, just like the couple earlier.>

<Imbeciles. They probably think they’ll get rich if they pull this off.> Ozette added.

Ten seconds later, Major Travas pressed the call button.

<H-how did you know? Who are you?> He said, making a point of sounding shocked.

<I see no point of answering that question. We’re simply patriots of Lor.> The man replied, letting the answer slip. Perhaps the surprise in Travas’s tone had led him to drop his guard.

“Correction. We’re dealing with a bunch of first-class idiots.” Yzma said snidely.

<We will give you ten minutes. We will spare you if you all come out of the train with your hands in the air.>

With that, the man ended the transmission.

But he quickly connected back and added,

<Don’t worry. We are not murderers.>

Once the men outside had stopped, Major Travas and his team resumed communication.

<Reporting in. Twenty-three hostiles on standby about 7 kilometers on the right side of the train. No camouflage, no face coverings. Mostly armed with handguns and submachine guns. Fewer than five rifles between them. No individual radios. No one in the vicinity of the truck on the tracks.>

Yzma followed.

<Reporting in. No sign of an ambush on the canal side. It’s all clear. Probably to make sure they don’t shoot one another in the crossfire. Or maybe it’s just to corner us.>

Finally, Ed, in the doorway of the last car.

<No hostiles behind the train.>

Ozette said that he had nothing to add. Ann reported that Hilda was calm and following instructions.

Major Travas glanced at his wristwatch. It had been one minute since the ultimatum.

<The Lor Patriots’ Front. A group of outlaws who engage in kidnappings, bombings, and terrorism for the supposed purpose of narrowing the gap between rich and poor. And they seem to seriously believe we’re carrying a load of gold ingots on this train.> Uno said. Yzma chimed in.

<It’s almost baffling how stupid these people are. Looks like our mastermind has a knack for manipulating imbeciles into doing his bidding.>

Major Travas finally spoke, stating a horrifying fact.

<From their lack of face coverings, I suppose they have no intention of letting us live.>

Uno agreed.

<Yes. They’re likely planning to load the ‘gold ingots’ onto a truck. After that, they’ll probably have the engineer derail the train into the canal. Or burn the train with the bodies. They probably offered us a chance to surrender because they’re rather not risk a shootout or because they’re waiting for reinforcements.>

Major Travas agreed. Then,

<We’ll send a respond five minutes before the deadline. Prepare for battle.>

With that he ended the transmission. He didn’t have to say what he planned to tell the Lor Patriots’ Front.


“No word from the driver. What should I do?”

“Keep trying. But don’t stop the next train until it starts getting dangerous.”

One of the employees at the operations office in Raputoa was beginning to panic. The supervisor responded with an annoyed look.

And,

“If you’ll excuse me, I have a stomachache.”

The supervisor left as the other employees watched, confused. The supervisor quickly walked down the hall and entered a deserted bathroom.

“Heh heh heh…”

The moment he locked the door, he began to chuckle.

He slammed the flush handle ecstatically.

“Now he’ll erase my wife! I can finally start over!” He whispered to himself.


When Major Travas reached the door to Hilda’s room, he armed the safety on his assault rifle and laid it on the floor. Then he knocked and stepped inside.

There was Hilda, sitting on the carpet in her bulletproof vest and helmet. She no longer had to lie against the floor.

Major Travas sat on bended knee and bowed his head.

“Your Highness. We will now proceed to forcibly eliminate these threats. There will be a commotion outside.”

Hilda fixed her tilted helmet and looked him in the eye.

“You’re going to kill the people out there to protect me?”

“Yes.” Major Travas said without a moment’s hesitation, his head still bowed.

“And will that also be an act of protecting yourself and your subordinates?”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“In that case… you have my blessings.” Hilda said firmly, and ordered Major Travas to raise his head. He did.

Hilda looked him straight in the eye.

“After all, I would like to meet Lillianne again someday.”


They had about five minutes left.

<Let’s get started.> Major Travas said from the VIP cabin, as casual as if he were having a barbecue with his friends.

Ann protected Hilda in the VIP cabin with a handgun.

Ozette and Uno lay on their stomachs behind their suitcases in the first class cabins, with assault rifles at the ready.

Ed was in the doorway of the last car with a suitcase, two rifles, and a sniper rifle.

Finally, Yzma was in the VIP car doorway, keeping an eye on both sides of the train.

Each subordinate casually voiced their readiness.

<You may begin.> Major Travas said, ending communication.

But he quickly added one more point.

<Show them that we are murderers.>


<This is the train. Can you hear me?>

<Yes. You’ve still got five minutes, but I’m willing to listen if you have your answer.>

<Of course. We’ve made our decision.>

In the doorway of the VIP car, Yzma disarmed the safety on his assault rifle. He moved the selector that doubled as the safety lever to the semi-automatic function at the very bottom.

“Give ‘em a good one, Major.”

Major Travas did.

<We don’t have an ounce of gold to hand over to fools like you. Move the truck out of our way in the next five seconds. Can you hear me? If you do not move the truck, we will kill you all. Prepare yourselves.>

“Whoo!” Yzma cheered, checking that his gun was loaded.


The line was silent for about twenty seconds following Major Travas’s ultimatum.

Then came a scathing response.

<You all die here.>


“They have refused our terms! Kill them all! But don’t burn the train unless you want all the gold to melt!” The man cried from beside the car.

He was the one who had earlier communicated through the radio with the junction crew. He had a slender frame and a scholarly bearing. The man was wearing green combat gear and had a holster at his side. Fittingly for a leader, around his neck was a pair of binoculars.

Sitting in the driver’s seat was a man of a similar age and build.

Twenty-three sets of ears heard the command.

“Let’s get ‘em! Take no prisoners—show them what we can do, for the glory of Lor!” Someone declared.

“YEAH!”

Twenty-three men ducked close to the ground as they moved forward.

The men ranged in age from their twenties to their fifties, and were not in any sort of uniform. Some wore combat gear, while others were in simple work wear.

They were armed mostly with several varieties of handguns and submachine guns with magazines jutting out the left side and pipes around the barrel. The men also had four or so powerful bolt-action rifles between them.

“Er… what about us?” Asked the driver and the engineer from behind the car. The leader replied without looking back.

“There’s nothing for you to do right now. Step back about 10 meters until this is over. Keep your head down so you don’t get hit by stray bullets.”

The driver and the engineer nodded and stepped away. They hid themselves behind the cars so they were not visible from the train. Then they both sat down on the moist ground.

“Hey.”

The leader called to the man in the driver’s seat and gestured briefly.

“…”

The man in the driver’s seat said nothing as he drew a suppressed submachine gun from the back seat. He loaded it and disarmed the safety.

“Hm?”

By the time one of the men on the ground realized what was happening, it was too late.

Psh. Psh. Psh. Psh.

There was a series of quiet gunshots. Shell casings leapt into the air and fell to the ground. The two train employees died bleeding everywhere.

“We’ve got nothing for you pieces of trash. The gold exists solely for our noble purposes.” The leader said.

At that moment, he spotted a car driving up to them from the left.

The car grew bigger and bigger in his sights—it was the one carrying the junction crew. When the leader looked ahead again, he saw his men about 5 meters from the train. There was no sign of a counterattack.

“Excellent.” The leader smiled.


<Begin.>

That was all Major Travas said.


“Excellent.” The leader smiled.

His head broke.

The 7.62 caliber round pierced his skin and drove itself into his left temple, instantly expanding its momentum.

The man’s skull collapsed under the pressure and was shattered instantly. The force of the impact escaped out the other side of his head, scattering blood and brains everywhere.

“Huh?”

The man in the driver’s seat, covered in blood and brains at the moment of the gunshot, also collapsed in the same way.


<‘Beheading’ complete.> Ed reported, holding a sniper rifle. He was lying in the doorway and opening fire through the gap in the door. Two shell casings had fallen next to him.

<Good. Open fire.> Major Travas ordered.

“Finally.” Yzma said, taking aim at a man approaching the train.


“Shit! They’ve started!”

The man in camo gear who had switched the junction swore, watching the team slowly approach the train.

He ordered the man in the driver’s seat to drive up next to the leader’s car—

“Huh?”

And saw the leader fall. A second later, a splash of red filled the driver’s seat of the leader’s car. That was followed by two gunshots.

“No…”

And he saw flashes of light from the train.

Gunfire began drumming on the once-quiet plain. The men approaching the train fell with almost laughable ease.

“Stop! Stop the car!” The man cried.

The driver hit the brakes. The car skidded to a halt about 200 meters before reaching its destination. The man quickly leapt out the right side of the car. A second later, a storm of bullets ravaged it.

Metal punctured metal, ringing like a set of bells.

“Urgh!” The driver gasped, dying with blood spewing from his face and chest.

Before the man who had leapt out of the car could hit the ground, a bullet pierced his left arm. He slipped on impact, collapsing on the ground.

“Damn it…” He muttered, covered in mud. Tracer shots flew over his head like arcs of light.


Inside the first class cabin.

Ozette finished firing on the approaching car and looked ahead again, changing magazines. The last three rounds in the magazine were tracer shots that signaled the magazine was running out.

The cabin window was already wide open. Ozette peered out from behind the suitcase and took aim at a figure 40 meters ahead. The figure was desperately trying to flee.

Ozette pulled the trigger.

A shell casing leapt into the air before hitting the wall and falling.

The fleeing man was hit. His heart stopped instantly. He fell forward and never moved again.

The gun turned to its next prey.


One by one, the men on the muddy plain fell to bullets from the train before them.

The leaders were already dead. Without any clear commands, the men were slaughtered without even a chance to shelter themselves.

“Return fire! The lights! Look for flashes of light when they fire and shoot back!” One lucky middle-aged man said to a man next to him, who was holding a submachine gun. Both men were practically clinging to the earth.

“Shit!”

The man with the submachine gun raised his gun with his stomach still flat against the dirt. The frame of the first class cabin window was visible in the backlight of the flashes. He took aim.

And opened fire.

The 9mm handgun rounds flew directly at the window.

“Yeah. That should do it.” He grinned.

The last thing he saw was the light from a single shot returning from the window he had shot.

He died bleeding on his submachine gun.


“That was close.” Uno said, quickly switching out magazines with his stomach flat on the floor. Though there were five rounds still left, he exchanged it for one loaded with thirty.

There were holes in the leather cover of the suitcase he was using as a shield. But none of the bullets made it past the lid.

“‘Be ready for anything’…”

With his left hand, Uno tapped the suitcase lid.

The metal plate on the inside of the lid clattered.


“This is just like practice…”

Yzma seemed bored. He fired off two more shots from the doorway. They took the lives of two men.

Then, Yzma stepped back and checked the canal side of the train. There was no one there.

“I’m almost disappointed.”

He ducked back into the doorway and lay on his stomach behind his suitcase. A second later, the suitcase shook.

“Whoa!”

The suitcase sacrificed itself to a rifle shot, protecting Yzma. But the edge of the lid hit Yzma square on the forehead, leaving an injury that would end up a very long-lasting bruise.

“Ow… Okay. Focus.”

With a renewed sense of professionalism Yzma got down and took aim at the man who had just fired at him, who was operating the bolt on his rifle.

But before Yzma could even pull the trigger, Major Travas’s barrage shattered the rifle and turned the man into a body.


In Treize’s VIP cabin at the very front of the train, Major Travas was half-leaning against a suitcase by the left side of the window.

<Continue fire.>

He ordered over the radio as he assessed the situation through the open window. Then he let go of the call button and switched his assault rifle magazine with his left hand. The old magazine was empty. Once he had locked in the new one, he covered the top and right side of the rifle and pulled the lever.

He listened to the dull sound of metal on metal.

“I solemnly swear to use guns responsibly—”

He whispered under his breath.

“I solemnly swear to use guns responsibly. I swear to use guns only to shoot our enemies, save our countrymen, and protect our homeland.”


Nineteen years ago, Wilhelm Schultz had held up his right hand before his classmates and friends as he made a vow.

It was at the Lowe Sneum Memorial Secondary School in the Neit region of the Republic of Raputoa. Snow was scattered on the grounds and roofed walkways connected the school buildings.

Before the row of secondary school students were desks. On each desk was a military-issue bolt-action rifle. Fixed to the cartridge chamber was a mechanism for changing the caliber. On the sight was a mirror by which the instructor could check the student’s aim. And printed on the stock in large font were the words ‘FOR RECRUIT TRAINING’.

Beyond the desks stood a staff sergeant in his fifties wearing a Confederation Army uniform. His right leg was a stick-shaped prosthetic from the knee down. Though there was a stern look on his face, the staff sergeant bellowed with a strangely warm smile.

“Good! I have heard your vows. Now I will instruct you to properly use a gun. Though this is a credit course, marksmanship is also a technique you need to protect your homeland! Take your vows to heart! I am here to raise protectors of the weak, champions of good! I am not here to raise murderers!”


“I solemnly swear…”

Whispering, Major Travas raised the assault rifle to shoulder-level and saw a man about 20 meters away, pulling out a molotov cocktail from his bag and lighting it.

The moment the man stood upright to throw, Major Travas opened automatic fire. The bullets hit the man’s arm. The bottle shattered and his body was engulfed in flames.

As the man screamed and burned, Major Travas fired one shot into the man’s head. He died instantly. The corpse quietly burned.


<Shoot the cars.>

When Ed—still in the doorway of the last car—heard Major Travas’s order, he turned his gaze to the distance.

There was the four-wheel-drive car where the leader and the driver had been before they were shot. One man had managed to avoid the gunfire to return to the cars. He climbed into the remaining car and started it.

<I’ll get it.> Ed replied, putting down his steaming assault rifle and picking up a backup.

He removed the curved magazine, which held 30 rounds, and pulled out a drum-shaped magazine containing 75 rounds from the suitcase. He attached it to the assault rifle.


“Shit! He said they’d only have handguns! He said this would be a piece of cake! Damn it! They’re practically an army!”

The man swore as he quickly started the car. He turned and began heading south without sparing a thought for his comrades. He did not even blink as he ran over the bodies of the two railroad employees.


When Ed saw the car turn, he stopped firing. He turned to his right and leapt from the coupling and onto the tracks. He quickly went behind the train to avoid being shot and took aim with his assault rifle, using the train itself as a shield.

He took a deep breath.

Ed took aim at the car as it fled south and opened fire on automatic.

Suppressing the powerful recoil with raw strength and adjusting his aim with the tracer shots that fired every four rounds, Ed showered the car with nearly 50 bullets. Shell casings flew into the air and scattered around him.

The car continued, sparks flying as the bullets hit. And out of nowhere, it was engulfed in flames.

The fuel tank at the back of the car had exploded. The car spun. The man in the driver’s seat flew into the air, covered in flames.

<Done.> Ed reported.

<Excellent. Not many left now. Focus on eliminating the rest.> Major Travas ordered.

Ed carefully peered out from behind the train as he scanned the area for enemies.

About 50 meters ahead he spotted a young man about twenty years of age, frozen in terror. He was sitting on the ground with his head in his hands, crying.

Ed opened fire on automatic. Using the recoil, he swept the target from left to right.

Countless bullets pierced the young man. He no longer had to tremble in fear.


Gunfire punctuated the air.

Sometimes, one at a time. Sometimes rhythmically like the sound of drumming.

Inside the VIP cabin, Hilda was lying on her stomach on the floor. Ann stuck by the suitcase and peered outside through the gap in the curtains. Though it was not a very long time, it seemed for all the world like an eternity.

Each time there was a gunshot, and each time a bullet hit the train—

“Ah!”

—Hilda would flinch.

Ann turned.

“It’s going to be fine, Your Highness. No one’s gotten near the train. We won’t let them.”

“I’m all right.” Hilda replied resolutely. “I’m not going to die like this. Nor will you and the team, or Major Travas.”

“Of course.” Ann said. But what Hilda said next shook her to the core.

“Major Travas chose me over his own daughter. So neither of us can die here.” She said with a smile.

“His—daughter…? Wh-what do you mean, Your Highness?” Ann repeated. Hilda struggled to look up under the weight of her helmet. She seemed to be surprised by Ann’s shock.

“His daughter. Lillianne. Lillia’s mother is the major’s wife.”

“…Your Highness… what do you mean by that?”

“Didn’t you know? I could tell the moment I saw Lillia’s eyes. She’s Major Travas’s daughter.”

“That’s… not possible. …The major should have been in Sfrestus…”

“I don’t know all the details, but—”

At that moment, the gunfire ended. Ann heard Major Travas’s voice through her earpiece.


<Hold fire. Report all injuries.> Said Major Travas. No one said a thing for three seconds.

<Good. Ed, Ozette, come with me. We’ll be checking the bodies. Yzma, take over Ann’s post. Uno, Ann, to the roof with the sniper rifle. You’ll be covering us.>

Everyone responded in acknowledgement.

<Yes, sir. I’ll head to the roof.> Ann replied into the radio. Then,

“Please stay where you are, Your Highness, and don’t take off the vests or the helmet. And please pretend I haven’t yet heard what you just told me. Please.”

Hilda nodded silently.

“Sorry to keep you waiting. I’ll take over.” Yzma said brightly, entering the cabin.


The muddy fields were covered in blood.

Some were missing half their heads. Some had gaping holes in their chests. Some lay on the ground with their arms blown off. Most of the men who had tried to approach the train were corpses.

Ed, Ozette, and Major Travas examined the fallen men, one after another.

Ozette approached the bodies first with a handgun at the ready, and Ed covered him with an assault rifle. Major Travas followed, also holding a rifle and keeping a close eye on their surroundings.

When they encountered a body lying face-down, Ozette slowly flipped it over. Once he was sure the corpse was a corpse, he would place the corpse’s hands over its eyes.

When they discovered someone playing dead, moaning, or with limbs still twitching, Ed immediately opened fire.

Ann and Uno were on the roof of the first class sleeper car.

Along the center of the car was a meter-wide walkway used for maintenance.

Ann sat in that walkway with her legs forward. Her elbows were on her knees, and she was aiming a very long sniper rifle.

A soft but chilly northerly wind shook her black hair.

“…”

With her right eye on the scope, Ann looked to see if anyone was still moving. Major Travas came in and out of her sight at times.

Uno stood at her left with an assault rifle, keeping an eye on the area.

The canal was as calm as it could be. The surface of the water was still. Black smoke wafted from the car that had exploded in the distance. No one but their team moved.

Several bursts of gunfire later.

<Extermination complete. You may lower your guard.>

Ann breathed a sigh of relief. She took her eye off the scope and stretched out her legs, before bending them again.

Major Travas was on the plain, checking corpses for potential evidence.

“Could I ask you something, sir? Something’s been bothering me.” Ann said, still holding the sniper rifle.

“What is it?” Uno replied. He was unconsciously fiddling with his cropped hair.

“It’s about Major Travas. I was told that he and Ms. Schultz, the Roxchean pilot—”

“—are dating? I thought that was obvious.” Uno said nonchalantly. Ann corrected him.

“No, sir. I was told that Lillianne Schultz was their daughter. Is this true?” She asked with a glint in her eye.

“Hm. Can’t say I know for certain.” Uno replied, again as nonchalant as ever. Ann was nearly convinced by his attitude.

“So it’s not complete nonsense, then. …But I don’t understand. The major should have been attending the Royal Officer Academy. All students are mandated to live in the dorms. It’s impossible… Isn’t it?”

“Who knows? It’s not that important, anyway.” Uno replied. Ann was not satisfied with the answer.

“But sir, it is important. How could we trust a commanding officer with a dubious past—”

“Why are you so curious?” Uno said, cutting her off.

Both Uno and Ann were looking at the plain. Major Travas and the others were still examining corpses.

“A-as I said, if we want to carry out important missions, our commanding officer—”

“It’s ‘cause he killed your father, right?”

The sniper rifle in Ann’s grip trembled.


“How… did you…?”

Slowly, she turned.

Uno was still looking over the plains, as calm as he could be.

“Heh. Your first day on the team, you were practically radiating bloodlust. So I decided to air out the place and ask the major. And he told me. Didn’t try to hide a thing.”

“Wh-what did he say?”

“That he killed Captain Gratz when he was young. Your father passed away the year the mural was found, so it’s hard to see the major having killed someone when he was so young… Well, I don’t know all the details, either.”

“Did the major really say so in person?”

“Yep. Headmaster Aikashia said something similar later. And this is what the major told me: ‘Gratz Axentine has every reason to avenge her father. If it seems to you that she will take action—’.”

“‘Stop her’?”

“‘Don’t try to stop her’. He said it would be meaningful in its own way if he were your first kill. He also said, ‘and so, the cycle of revenge will end’.”

“…”

“Well, we all have our own lives to live. No one can make your decisions for you. And you take responsibility for the consequences of your decisions.”

“…Captain Berkins.”

“Hm?”

Ann continued, almost jokingly.

“You know a great deal, don’t you?”

The man called Captain Berkins—Uno—grinned.

“This might be my only chance, so I’ll tell you now.”

“Your ‘only’ chance?”

“I’m not going to repeat myself, so listen well, Gratz Axentine. …My original mission was to keep an eye on the major. A spy for a spy, you could say. I was ordered to give detailed reports to the military on the major’s actions. To contact the military immediately if he showed any sign of treachery, and to kill him if necessary. But as you can see, the major is a true patriot. He loves our homeland and he loves Roxche—he loves the world.”

“…”

“This might sound cowardly of me, but I don’t think the major would have killed Captain Gratz without a reason.”

“…”

“On that note, the major is planning on going on a long vacation after this mission. He’s already received permission. Seems to me like he’s going to have a chat with Ms. Schultz about their future.”

“You mean… he’s going to retire?”

“Who knows? Let’s just say it’s possible. And if he retires, I’m done too.”

“…”

“You might not see him for a while. So make sure you don’t have any regrets.” Uno said, and quickly added one more comment. “Also, pretend you didn’t hear any of this.”

Ann, staring into the scope, looked up at Uno with a smile.

“Hear what?”

“Excellent.”


Immediately afterwards,

<Come over here, Uno. Ann, remain at your post.> Major Travas said through the radio, almost as if he had been waiting for the conversation to end.

After responding, Uno stepped down using the railings on the side of the coupling.

Alone on the roof, Ann absently cast a southward glance.

“…”

The long, straight tracks they had traveled along continued all the way to the horizon.


Uno crossed the bloodstained plains and joined the others.

Major Travas, Ed, and Ozette were searching the car that the leader had been in, which was now occupied by a corpse with half a head.

On the hood of the car were documents they had found in a bag soaked with blood and brains, weighed down under a handgun and a magazine.

“Strange. What a conundrum.” Major Travas said.

“Yeah. From the informant documents here, this group was also played by the mastermind. But—”

“But they were too poorly equipped. They didn’t get any clear information.”

Ozette and Ed commented. Uno nodded.

“If the mastermind’s goal was to eliminate the lady, and he knew about us, he obviously would have known about our equipment. He would have known that we had enough gear to practically wage a war. Then why didn’t he tell these people about our security when he told them about the gold?” Major Travas wondered. Ozette commented.

“They would have prepared a lot more sniper rifles. They could have easily bought models smuggled out of the military. And the way these people attacked bothers me, too. Crawling in slowly in an open area like this is practically suicide. The mastermind could have instructed them better.”

“If I were the mastermind, I would have set up bombs on the tracks. Then I could derail the train and take the gold. That way the passengers wouldn’t leave unscathed, either.” Ed noted.

“Hm. That would have been an option as well. They could have torched the train with the passengers afterwards. But the mastermind neglected to use even such a simple plan. Why is that?” Major Travas asked himself. “Why? Why did someone so clever let these people launch what amounted to an ineffective suicide attack?”

Narrowing his eyes, Major Travas looked down and stared into the distance. No one spoke.

Five seconds later.

“I see… He didn’t let them launch such a foolish attack…”

Major Travas raised his head.

“I’ve got it! I understand what he’s after now.”

All eyes were on Major Travas.


Including one unknown set of eyes.

“Shit…”

It was the man in camouflaged clothes, who had switched the tracks at the junction.

After being shot in the arm, he had curled up in the mud and grass. A bandage was wrapped tightly around his upper arm to stop his bleeding.

He had been listening to the painful deaths of his dying friends, clenching his teeth.

The moment he thought to catch a ride on an approaching car, the car exploded. The friend who was thrown into the air screamed as he writhed in pain before finally dying.

As he listened to the gunshots from the murderers who took care to shoot those still left alive, he had slowly reached into the trunk and grabbed a sniper rifle.

He pulled out the rifle and placed the stock on his bloody left arm. He operated the bolt with his right hand. Although his enemies couldn’t possibly hear from that distance, he still took care to be as silent as possible.

Once he had loaded a round, he slowly crept forward—fighting the burning agony—and lay on his stomach beside the car.

About 200 meters away was a car of the same model. The murderers were standing there.

At the center of the group was a man wearing glasses.

The man on the ground concluded that the bespectacled one must be the leader.

“Damn you… if nothing else, I’ll get you…”

The crosshairs in his scope aligned with the man’s glasses. He looked into his eyes.

The murderer looked up and said something. Naturally, the man could not hear him.

“Yes… those will be… your last words.”

A bloodied finger touched the trigger.


The sniper smiled, slowly pulling the trigger.

All that practice had paid off. The rifle did not budge at the moment of fire.

The bullet flew faster—and more accurately—than the speed of sound and blew off half the man’s head.

A shell casing leapt into the air, glinting in the sunlight as it fell onto the tracks.


Having committed her first murder, Gratz Axentine slowly reached for her own neck.

<I’ve taken care of the sniper aiming for the major. Extermination complete.>

The man whose last words were ‘last words’ was the last of his group to die.


* * *


<Excellent work, First Lieutenant Gratz. …And thank you.>


At that moment, inside a train traveling dozens of kilometers away—

“Hm.”

A man glanced at his wristwatch.

“Have they exterminated them by now?” Wondered the man once called ‘Prisoner 42’.


-----


Chapter 7.


-----

3 comments:

  1. Of the others, one of young and the other was middle-aged. (one of young > one was young?)
    The car drover into a dirt road. (drover > drove)

    Thanks as always! I've really come to like Allison / Lillia and Treize so it's sad to see the series end, but at least the final book seems very promising so far.

    ReplyDelete