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Chapter 1: A Story of Feeding off of Others
-I Want to Live-
The forest was covered in snow.
The blanket of white had been heavy on the plants in the woods all winter long. Tall coniferous trees stood over the wintry world.
The sky peered through between the branches, dark and covered with low grey clouds ready to pour more snow at any moment. The sun shone feebly.
It was quiet. Completely silent, save for the occasional sound of snow slipping off branches. Not even the wind whistled.
Out of nowhere, a wild rabbit emerged. It was completely white save for the ears.
The rabbit slowly moved, leaving faint pawprints in its wake. Then it stopped with a twitch of the ears and head, then resumed moving.
The rabbit repeated the actions for some time before suddenly freezing. Its ears quivered. A glowing red dot appeared on its forehead.
In the same forest was a human.
A person wearing a cloaked winter coat and pants that covered even the feet. The person was wearing a fur-rimmed hat and a one-eye goggle with a yellow lens. A face warmer extended from the neck to cover the rest of her face.
The person sat against a tree with one leg up. There was a hand persuader in her grip, held with both hands between the knees. The persuader was an automatic model with a narrow frame and a harmonica-shaped suppressor. A red light suddenly emerged from the small hole under the muzzle. A laser sight for aiming. It was pointed straight at the rabbit’s head.
With breaths rising in white puffs, the person slowly pulled the trigger. The persuader clicked.
In the blink of an eye, blood spurted from the rabbit’s head.
The rabbit trembled and fell, completely lifeless. Blood dyed its white fur red and melted the snow piled under its body.
In the forest was a straight path lined with cut wood. It was covered in snow and frozen.
A motorrad stood in the middle of the road.
There was a sturdy luggage rack behind the seat of the motorrad, but instead of luggage, a lone sack was hanging from it.
The motorrad had been modified for snowy conditions. Sharp arms attached to either side of the tires provided extra grip. At the ends of the arms were footrests with small skis fixed underneath. They would prevent the motorrad from tipping even if the tires slipped.
“I got it, Hermes.”
Someone emerged from the woods with the rabbit, holding it upside-down by its tied legs. A covered holster was stuck diagonally through the front of her belt.
“Great work, Kino,” the motorrad called Hermes cheered. “Now you won’t have to resort to rations.”
Kino nodded, put the rabbit in the sack, and tied it to the luggage rack.
She pulled off her goggles and bandanna, then lowered her face warmer. Kino was in her mid-teens, with short black hair and fair features.
Casually wiping off sweat, she fixed her hat and replied, “Let’s go back, then. I’d feel sorry if I left them to die now.”
“You’d feel sorry?” asked Hermes.
“To whom?” Hermes asked again.
Kino replied, “To the rabbit.”
She started Hermes. The sound of the engine broke the silence in the woods. Putting on her goggles and face warmer, Kino put her feet on the skis and left.
A newish truck sat by a corner in the white road. Snow buried half the tires and the bottom of the chassis, rendering it completely immobile. Another thick layer was piled on the roof.
A large tent stood a slight distance from the truck, on the border between the road and the woods. The tent was dome-shaped with the snow around it cleared.
The hum of an engine broke the silence, and soon Kino and Hermes arrived.
A man half-crawled to the tent entrance and peered outside. He was in his thirties with a hollow face, wild hair, and a messy mop of a beard. His winter clothes were equally messy.
When Kino pulled the rabbit out of the sack and held it up to the man, he looked up at it with a grin and pulled back inside. Then, two other men poked their heads out the door. A bespectacled man in his twenties and a man in his forties with a sprinkling of grey hair. Both were emaciated, but the sight of the rabbit brought life to their eyes.
“I’ll cook it for you. Let me borrow a pot,” said Kino.
The man in his thirties replied, “Just give it to us now. We can eat it raw.”
The other men tried to agree, but Kino shook her head. “No. I can’t have you get food poisoning.”
Disappointed, the men brought out two pots—one large and one small—from inside the tent. Kino received them.
“I’ll call for you when I’m done, so get some rest.”
“Right,” said the man in his thirties. “…Kino?”
He met her gaze. “Thank you.”
Kino gave a faint smile. “It’s too early to be thanking me. But you’re welcome.”
That morning, Kino and Hermes were traveling down the frozen road, the clouds heavy over their heads.
They were making good pace that day thanks to the tire and ski attachments.
Hermes’ luggage rack was laden with not only Kino’s bags, but a winter tent, a sleeping bag, and many other pieces of travel gear.
“Look,” Hermes said suddenly. “A truck.”
Kino slowed down without touching the brake pedal and came to a stop before the buried truck. She shut off the engine and disembarked.
Opening the cover of the holster on her belt, she drew her revolver-type persuader. The persuader’s name was ‘Cannon’.
Just as she approached the truck, Kino noticed the tent beside it. And she met the eyes of the man who had rushed to poke his face out the entrance.
The man was in his thirties with a messy beard. He was staring at Kino in utter shock. She holstered Cannon and spoke.
Without a word, the man crawled out of the tent and feebly stood. Behind him were two more faces, both equally shocked by her presence.
The man looked at Kino and Hermes. “Y-you’re a traveler, aren’t you? Do you have any food to spare…?”
“I see what’s going on,” Hermes said casually.
“I suppose I might. …How long have you been here?”
“Don’t die of shock, all right? Since the beginning of winter.”
A hint of surprise rose to Kino’s face.
“That’s incredible,” said Hermes. “Then you’ve been here for a really long time.”
“That’s right. The snowfall started a little early this year, and it was a blizzard to boot. We’ve been tied up here ever since, half-dead.”
“It’s a good thing you’re only half-dead,” Hermes said. No one laughed.
“Your truck isn’t carrying any food, I suppose,” Kino said. The men looked both sad and pained at the question.
“It was, but we finished it all. We didn’t leave without any rations, of course, but who knew we’d be stuck here all winter? We should have been more careful. Please, we’ve been waiting so long! Please spare some food for us. It’s only three mouths here,” the man pleaded, pointing at the tent. His companions also gave Kino desperate looks.
“I'm begging you,” the man said, clasping his hands together. Kino sighed.
“I do have some food, although only rations. Unfortunately, I only travel with enough food to feed myself alone. It’s not nearly enough to feed you all.”
Their dejection was palpable.
“But,” Kino said. They looked up. “I can hunt for you. There must be some animals in the area, especially since it’s beginning to warm up. And once you have some of your strength back, you’ll be able to try pushing your truck out of the snow. Do you have any fuel left?”
“Of course! Then you’ll help us?” the man asked, rejoicing. With three sets of eyes and the weight behind them on her shoulders, Kino gave a slight nod.
“Yes. I’ll stay here a few days and help you out.”
The men were all smiles; they showered Kino with thanks.
“What’s your name?” asked the man in his thirties.
“Kino. And this here is Hermes.”
“Kino, eh? Take a look at this,” the man said, producing a small box from his pocket and opening it up for Kino to see. Inside was a ring—made of silver and inlaid with several green gemstones.
“She’ll fetch a fair price, this one. It’s yours. Keep it.”
He held the box out to Kino.
“It’s too early to be thanking me.”
“I insist. Bought it for my wife, but it’s no use to her if I die out here.”
Kino received the box and opened the lid. She scrutinized its contents for a time without expression.
“All right,” she finally said, putting the box in her pocket. “I’ll take it as a reward once I’ve helped you out. I’m only holding on to it for now. Wait here and I’ll go catch some game. I’m leaving my things here, but don’t touch them. Meat will taste much better than my rations.”
Kino unloaded Hermes completely and tied a sack to the luggage rack.
And she left hunting.
Kino got to work on preparing the meal.
She dug a small pit in the snow next to a tree, and started a fire in the pit with a bit of solid fuel, old newspapers, and twigs. She hung the pot from the tree with rope, adjusted its height to match the fire, and scooped up the cleanest snow she could find.
Then, she placed the rabbit on the metal plate she used for target practice. For several seconds, she gazed at the rabbit, then closed her eyes for several more.
A moment of silence. Then she butchered the rabbit.
Kino took off her gloves and exchanged them for a pair of thin rubber ones. She pulled them up all the way to the sleeves of her winter coat.
First, she unfolded her hunting knife and made multiple incisions around the rabbit’s back.
Then she pulled at its skin from the left and right until its neck and the tips of its paws were completely exposed, and cut them off.
The rabbit was reduced to a pink piece of meat much smaller than before.
Kino made a long abdominal incision from the neck to the anus to remove the organs. She washed out the rabbit’s empty belly with snow and paper, then lightly rinsed it out.
As for the legs, she made incisions in the connecting areas and broke the joints to remove them. She cut the hind legs in half at the knees, and carved up the torso into smaller bits.
Finally, the rabbit had been turned into pieces of meat fit for a butcher shop.
Kino adjusted the fire, scooped out visible scraps from the water inside, and put in the rabbit chunks. She wiped down her metal plate with snow, then heated it over the fire to disinfect the surface. Once her work was all done, Kino took off her rubber gloves.
The meat was soon ready to eat.
The men came at Kino’s call, each staggering from the tent with a plate and cup in hand. They huddled around the fire with haggard faces, eyes alone glinting.
Kino sprinkled salt and pepper on the meat and handed out the pieces. The men simply stared for a moment. Then, tears ran down their dirty cheeks.
“Damn it. Someone pinch me.”
“You’re not dreaming,” said Kino. “Give it a taste. It’s not going to vanish.”
The men tore the chunks of meat into small pieces with their fingertips and slowly brought them to their mouths. They chewed, chewed, chewed, swallowed, closed their eyes, and sighed.
“Delicious…” the man in his forties muttered, tears running down his face.
“It’s good…” the man in his twenties also cried, his hands still busy with the meat. The remaining man said nothing, simply chewing on and on with his eyes closed—savoring the texture of the very real meat in his mouth. “Ahh, been so long since I’ve had anything this good… It’s like a chunk of heaven in my mouth. A bit salty, though.”
The men laughed through their tears. When they wiped their eyes, some of the dirt came off their faces.
Kino brewed tea with the water she boiled in the other pot and poured each man a cup. Then she handed them several tablets.
“Here. These are vitamins and other medicines. I have plenty of them to spare.”
The youngest of the men beamed. “Thank you. You’re really pulling out all the stops for us, eh?”
“Not going to have any meat, Kino?” asked the man in his thirties.
“I would if there was any left over, but it looks like you’re going to finish it all. I’m fine with my usual,” Kino replied, flashing them her rations—rectangular sticks that looked like pieces of clay.
“You should give them a bit of thanks, too,” Kino said, pointing at a tree branch.
From there hung the fur and torso of the rabbit she had butchered.
The men quickly put their cups and plates down on the snow, clasped their hands, and closed their eyes.
Kino—and Hermes from behind them—watched as the men slowly offered up prayers of thanksgiving.
“Thank you, God, for creating other creatures made of flesh and blood…and forgive us, God, for killing in order to survive…”
The prayers continued for some time. Kino stuffed her rations into her mouth and watched.
Afterwards, the men took their time and finished off the rest of the meat.
When the sun began to set, the skies grew even darker. The world first went grey, then slowly fell into darkness.
Kino pitched her small one-person tent on the other side of the truck from the men’s tent.
She brewed one last batch of tea for the men before going to bed. They thanked her again before returning to their tent.
Kino pulled a cover over Hermes’ engine and tank, and retired to her own tent.
The next morning, Kino rose while it was still dark. Clouds still covered the sky, and rogue flakes of snow were fluttering from above.
Kino warmed up and exercised in the snow, and did drawing practice with Cannon several times over.
Then she had a breakfast of rations, beat Hermes awake, and started his engine. She tied the sack to the luggage rack again.
“My engine’s not a stove, you know,” Hermes grumbled.
“Come on, Hermes. It works well as one,” Kino replied.
That day, Kino went out hunting with Hermes again and caught two rabbits. One of them was quite large.
She returned to camp, butchered one of the rabbits, and around afternoon, boiled the meat as she had the previous day.
The men came out of their tent and thanked her profusely again as they dug in. Then they returned to their tent to rest.
Kino cut some tree branches to use as kindling and hung them up.
She cooked the second rabbit for dinner.
The men finished the rabbit without leaving a scrap behind. Bones sucked clean began forming a small mound by the campfire.
Over dinner, the smiling men promised Kino that if she were to ever visit their country, they would treat her to so much of her favorite food that she would double in weight.
The men recovered quickly. They no longer staggered.
The snow stopped completely that night, and the clouds began to clear. Stars slowly came into view.
Kino was wrapped up in her sleeping bag inside her tent. Hermes spoke from outside the entrance.
“Kino, are you awake?”
“Is it okay for you to waste time like this?” Hermes asked.
“No,” Kino confessed. “It may be warming up, but I want to get out of this forest as soon as possible.”
“Then why are you here?”
“For the pay. They’re giving me this ring,” Kino replied casually.
“What’s so good about a ring?” asked Hermes. He heard rustling in Kino’s tent. Her left hand came sticking out the entrance. A ring was on the middle finger.
“What do you think?” Kino asked, flipping her hand over.
“It doesn’t suit you,” Hermes declared.
Kino pulled back inside. “Yeah. I think it’ll get in the way when I’m holding the handle. But it’ll fetch a good price. And there’s no harm in helping someone in need.”
“I wonder,” Hermes said tersely.
The next day. It was the third day since Kino encountered the men.
When Kino opened her eyes, the sky was clear with a tint of blue. There wasn’t a cloud in sight.
As Kino went about her morning exercise routine, the sun slowly rose into the sky, a glowing orange orb. It cast a long shadow of Kino on the snow.
Soon, the men awoke. They were now well enough to not only not stagger, but also to boil water for themselves.
“It looks like you’re all feeling much better,” Kino said. The men nodded.
“We sure are, thanks to you.”
Kino shared some of her rations with them for breakfast. It was not much, but enough to satiate four stomachs.
After the meal, the men reminisced about their hometown over tea.
“They’ll be flabbergasted to see us when we get back. Probably had no idea we’d been stranded here all this time. I’d bet they thought we’d all been shot to death somewhere.”
“Must have made graves for us by now.”
“Sounds pretty interesting, being able to walk up and see your own grave.”
The man in his thirties asked Kino where her country was, but she simply shook her head.
“Ah, I see. Sorry for asking,” the man said, ending the conversation.
Afternoon brought warmer weather.
The men told Kino that they wanted to try moving the truck. They would split the job, clearing the snow and building a ramp at the front and back of the truck to somehow dislodge it. Then they could head for the nearest country.
“We need to unload the cargo first,” said the man in his thirties. “Could you lend us a hand, Kino?”
Kino and the men went around to the back of the truck.
Three locks sealed the cargo box. The man in his thirties received the keys from his companions, unlocked the box, and went inside. There was a click.
The man in his forties said to Kino from a slight distance, “Kino, is the motorrad going to be all right?”
Confused by the question, Kino turned. At the same time, the man in his thirties leaned out of the cargo box. He was holding a long persuader. When Kino turned back, the man took aim at her.
Kino’s right hand reflexively whipped to her holster, but she quickly stopped. Then, she calmly looked back at the persuader pointing at her.
“Excellent decision. I’d have shot you on the spot if you’d drawn,” the man said, stepping out of the cargo box with the persuader still trained on Kino.
“Thank you,” Kino replied nonchalantly. The other men took several steps back, threatening looks on their faces.
“I don’t want to have to shoot you, Kino,” said the man with the persuader. “We take pride in transporting our products in mint condition.”
“Products?” Kino wondered.
“That’s right,” replied the man in his forties. “We deal in transporting human resources. Our products are people.”
“So you’re kidnappers, huh. Or slave traffickers,” Hermes, who was parked a distance away, piped up without a care.
The man with the persuader put on a wry grin. “I suppose if you had to be direct, yes. It’s true. And now that we have our strength back, we need to make a living. Which is why, Kino, we’re going to take you with us and sell you. Don’t bother trying to resist.”
“That’s your problem,” said Hermes. “We don’t want to get involved.”
The man in his forties replied, “Don’t worry, Hermes. Your partner’s a diamond in the rough. Add a bit of polish and sheen, and with her being so young, she’ll fetch a very good price. We always make sure to adorn our products with the best clothes and jewelry, which means we can adorn this one with a motorrad. We’re not going to dismantle you.”
“Thank you for making things easy to understand,” Kino said calmly, frozen.
The man in his thirties stared quietly into Kino’s eyes, persuader still aimed. “Don’t hold it against us. We’re honestly grateful for your help. The rabbit was very good. But think about it this way. We’re wolves. And wolves have their own ways. Ways that necessitate certain actions if they want to survive.”
Kino slowly raised her hands into the air.
“All right. Take your left hand and take off the holster you’ve got on your belt. The whole thing.”
Kino slowly unfastened Cannon’s holster from her belt.
“Toss it here.”
Cannon landed between Kino and the men. It lodged itself halfway into the snow.
The man in his twenties tried to retrieve it, but the man in his forties stopped him.
“Take off your coat. Slowly, one arm at a time.”
Kino did as she was told and pulled off her winter coat. Inside was a black jacket and a thick belt around her waist. Several small pouches hung from the belt.
“Now turn around. Easy does it.”
Kino turned. The holster behind her belt contained the persuader she used to hunt the rabbit. Kino called it ‘Woodsman’.
“I knew it. Take off that one too. Toss it here—slowly.”
“I’m surprised you noticed it,” Kino said, her eyes on Hermes.
With her right hand, she took Woodsman out of its holster and tossed it.
“Now put your hands in the air and slowly turn this way.”
Kino raised her hands and slowly turned.
The two unarmed men tried to approach her, but the man in his thirties stopped them.
“Wait. You had knives too, didn’t you? Where are they?”
“Here and there,” Kino replied, looking strangely sad.
“Drop ‘em all.”
Slowly, Kino put her right hand into her jacket pocket and took out the folding knife she used to cook the rabbit. She tossed it in one motion.
Her right hand went into one of the pouches on her belt. She took out a knife, which folded on its own with a click. She tossed it onto the snow.
Her right hand went into the left sleeve of her jacket. She took out a double-edged knife and tossed it. Then her left hand went into her right sleeve and produced another of the same knife before tossing it aside.
As the men watched in silence, Kino slowly stripped off her over-pants. She unzipped the side and stepped out of one leg, then the other, revealing the boots and pants she wore underneath.
Slowly, Kino squatted and pulled a thin knife from the sheath tied to her boot on the shin. She tossed it aside. She did the same with another knife on her left shin with her left hand.
The knife she cast aside hit another with a clatter.
“What are you, a knife merchant?” the man in his twenties muttered.
Kino’s right hand slowly unfastened the knife from its sheath on the right side of her belt. It was double-edged, 15 centimeters in length, and had a thick, cylindrical grip.
Kino met the gaze of the man in his thirties and finally spoke.
“This is the last one.”
“Toss it too.”
A red dot appeared on the man’s forehead. It was a light.
Then came three gunshots. From three of the four small holes on the border between the grip and blade of the knife came bullets.
Blood spurted from the forehead of the man in his thirties.
The man in his forties noticed Kino rushing towards him the moment he heard the gunshots. He swung with his left hand.
Kino ducked to avoid the attack and twisted his left arm with her own. Then she tackled him with all her weight and thrust the knife deep into the left side of his back.
A brief scream escaped his lips. At the same time, the man with three holes in his head crumpled in the snow.
Leaving the knife inside the older man, Kino lunged at the man in his twenties.
Almost simultaneously, the younger man fell and Kino grabbed Cannon.
Kino quickly operated the safety and stood before the younger man, who lay on the ground under the older man’s body.
The man screamed. Kino cast a sidelong glance at the man in his thirties, lying in the snow with his face dyed in blood. Then she took aim at the remaining man.
There was a gunshot and a puff of white smoke. Kino’s right hand bounced into the air. The man’s teeth went flying like popcorn. His head sprang up as though jolted, but soon came to a complete stop. Air from his lungs turned the blood pooling in his mouth into foam. The snow piled under his neck slowly melted in his blood.
Kino stood before three corpses. Steam rose faintly from the blood they shed.
“That was close,” said Hermes. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Kino replied, and added, “That gave me a scare. I thought I was a goner.”
Kino stood stock-still for some time with Cannon in hand.
She stood trembling under the clear blue sky and the world shining a brilliant silver.
“Are you all right now?” Hermes asked.
“Yeah. I am,” Kino replied, nodding. The bodies were already cold.
Kino stood before the cargo box. Cautiously taking aim, Kino inched the door open.
“I knew it…” she muttered as she stared inside. The sun cast bright rays into the box.
The cargo box was not very large. And it was littered with pale white bones.
Pale white human bones. Slender ribs. Thin phalanges. A hollow pelvis shattered to pieces. Broken thighbones sucked down to the marrow.
Littering the floor alongside the bones were spent chunks of solid fuel. And metal plates from the cargo box itself. Pieces of backbone lay there, burnt black.
In a corner of the cargo box was the head.
The head was not very large, tied to a pipe by its long blond hair. It was facing down.
It must have belonged to a girl around Kino’s age.
The girl had no eyes or nose, only silent black holes. The flesh had been carved from her cheeks and jaw, exposing more and more of her skull as Kino’s gaze went down her face. Her wide-open jaw was hanging from the skull by a sliver.
A fist-sized hole gaped from the front of the skull. The brain was gone.
In the opposite corner hung a bright yellow dress.
“Do you see all this, Hermes?” Kino asked.
“Yeah. Their leftovers,” Hermes replied.
Kino looked down at the bodies collapsed outside the cargo box.
“She must have been their precious cargo before this happened.”
“And what about before that?” Hermes asked in response.
Kino gazed at the sparkling rope of blond hair and replied pensively, “Who knows?”
She slowly shut the door and spoke to the girl.
“What they did was inhuman. But even they didn’t want to die.”
“We wasted too much time here. Let’s get going soon,” Kino said, picking up her knives.
Because Woodsman was stuck in the snow, snow had entered the barrel. Kino took aim in random directions and fired two shots. Then she operated the safety and holstered it behind her back.
The knife in the corpse’s back was next. The bloodied blade came clean after a few thrusts into the snow. Kino wiped off the snow with the clothes on the corpse.
There was a lid in the back of the knife’s grip. Kino opened it, and three empty cartridges emerged. She took out three rounds from a spare magazine for Woodsman that she had on her belt and loaded them into the knife. Then she sheathed the knife in the case on the right side of her belt.
Then, Kino put on her over-pants and winter coat again. She holstered Cannon as well.
Once she had collected her weapons, Kino quickly dismantled her tent and loaded everything onto Hermes. She started the engine.
But just before she departed, she went around to the side of the truck and crouched beside the corpse holding the persuader.
Kino took off her left glove. The ring still shone on her middle finger. It was the silver ring inlaid with green gemstones.
Taking the original box out of her pocket, Kino put the ring back inside. Then she placed the box in the man’s pocket.
“I’m giving this back,” she whispered. “I didn’t manage to save you, so I can’t take this payment.”
“Aww. You liked that ring, Kino,” Hermes also whispered.
Kino straddled Hermes. She pulled her hat and goggles over her face.
When she stepped on the gas pedal, the engine responded with a roar.
“Let’s go,” said Hermes.
“Yeah,” Kino replied.
Kino took one last look around to make sure she was leaving nothing behind. Three rabbits hung in a row from a branch, their eyes on her.
“Don’t hold it against us. We’re only human.”
The motorrad started for the distance.
The truck and the four bodies soon passed out of sight.