* * *
Chapter 9: The Story of the Pillagers
My name is Riku. I am a dog.
I have long, soft, white fur. I look as though I am always smiling, but that doesn’t mean I’m always happy. I was simply born with this face.
My owner is Master Shizu. He is a young man who is always wearing a green sweater, and he is traveling on a buggy after having lost his home in complex circumstances.
And I am with Master Shizu.
One day, we arrived at a small country in the highlands surrounded by trees.
The locals farmed rice paddies of the gentle slopes, and were hard at work. On the flat plains at the base of the valley was a village with a river running through the middle.
The country had two sets of walls—high ramparts protecting the village, and low stone walls around the larger perimeter.
“It’s beautiful here. And peaceful too,” Master Shizu said from the driver’s seat. He sounded happy. As usual, he was wearing his green sweater.
“It’s a small country, Master Shizu. Almost small enough to be a village,” I remarked.
Master Shizu replied, “Yeah. But bigger isn’t necessarily better. The important thing is for the people to have happy, fulfilling lives.” His eyes narrowed sadly. “Although there’s no set definition of happiness, I suppose. And no one can really say what will make us happy.”
I could not respond.
“Let’s go,” Master Shizu said, noticing my gaze, and accelerated.
We descended a slope and neared the paddies, to the surprise of the farmers. Master Shizu disembarked and called out to them. They rushed into the walls. Soon, several men came out of the gates.
Master Shizu explained that we were travelers, and asked to be allowed entry and rest. The men asked him if he was armed.
Master Shizu showed them his favorite sword, which sat next to the driver’s seat. When they asked if he had anything else, he shook his head.
The men told us that the country could not provide him full hospitality, and asked if that was all right. Master Shizu nodded, and they finally gave us permission to enter.
The men asked Master Shizu to hide his buggy in the large storehouse by the gates. They would explain why later, they said.
Master Shizu did as he was told and took out his large, black bag. He put his sword inside, and followed a guide into the village.
The village was packed with two-story houses. The roads snaked and twisted like a labyrinth. Master Shizu seemed to be enjoying the sights. He looked around, commenting that the streets were very old and fascinating to see.
“Perfect for hide-and-seek,” he said at one of the more confusing stretches of the road, which twisted in strange directions every other step. The guide gave him a quizzical glance.
Eventually, Master Shizu and I were led into some sort of assembly hall.
Waiting there were a group of men, who were the leaders of the country. Several women were serving tea. Master Shizu took a seat, and they greeted him.
The men were very grave indeed.
“You’re a traveler, you say. …As much as we’d like to give you our warmest welcome, I’m afraid you’ve come at an unfortunate time,” one of them said. The other men looked equally as despondent.
“May I ask what the problem is?” said Master Shizu.
The men exchanged glances. One of them said, “We are being pillaged.”
According to the men, the country had always been undisturbed. The people lived in peace.
The country was too small to have a military or police force. Occasional disputes with other lands were solved by the young men.
But several years ago, a group of men arrived on horseback. Ravenous, they butchered and ate livestock without permission.
Naturally, the villagers complained. But the men were shameless. They called themselves bandits and killed the men who went to try and stop them.
The villagers trembled in fear as the men demanded monthly offerings. If the villagers refused to comply, the bandits would slaughter them all.
“We considered taking shelter in the inner walls, yes. But if they were to simply camp out at the gates, we could not harvest our crops. They could even poison the river, too. The village agreed that it would cause less trouble if we simply gave them food, as they demanded. It was a painful decision, but one we all came to together,” said one of the men.
“I see,” Master Shizu said quietly.
Afterwards, the bandits would come once a month to take the village’s offerings.
The village’s once-abundant food supplies were being siphoned away. One bad harvest, and the villagers would likely starve. So everyone had to work harder than before every day.
“People are beginning to lose their minds. It’s been very stressful for us,” said one of the men.
“I understand. Thank you for sharing such a painful story with us,” Master Shizu said, and fell into thought. Then he asked, “When are they due to arrive next?”
“Tomorrow. We have the offering ready. How much longer will they extort us this way…?”
“How many of them are there?”
“Always about twenty. But they are all strong, grown men, all on horseback and armed with persuaders. They are bloodthirsty killers. You should take care on your travels too. They might try to take your vehicle and murder you.”
“Of course,” Master Shizu muttered.
“Traveler. We would be most grateful if you could pass on our plight to any nearby countries that you may visit. We…we understand that no country would be mad enough to send men to help a tiny country like ours. It wouldn’t help them in the least. We know that we must solve our own problems. But it is simply impossible for us. All we can do is be thankful that the brigands are only demanding food,” one of the men said sadly, The others nodded, also desperate.
Master Shizu fell into thought once more.
Then he said that he had a question.
What did he want to know, asked the men. All eyes were on Master Shizu.
“May I have a look around the village? The streets are beautiful.”
A young man guided Master Shizu and myself around the town. Master Shizu took in the sights, even more fascinated than before. He examined each and every street, checking how they crisscrossed in complicated ways and occasionally doubling back around.
The women and children gave him curious looks. As for me—
“Wow, a big white doggy!”
I was almost chased around by the local children.
People were stacking crates in the plaza by the gates. The guide said, “Those are the provisions we’re handing over tomorrow.”
“It’s not a small amount,” Master Shizu said. “What do the people do when the bandits come to take the food?”
“Hide in basement storehouses. Don’t want anyone to get hurt, after all. No one comes outside. And this hasn’t happened so far, but what if they start dragging away the women and children? Just thinking about it gives me nightmares,” the guide replied, shaking his head.
“I see,” Master Shizu said.
Master Shizu and I were given a room in the assembly hall. It was furnished with nothing but a bed, but Master Shizu thanked them just as profusely as he had when they served him a humble dinner.
“Will you be repaying them for their hospitality?” I asked. Master Shizu had begun polishing his sword by lamplight.
“No. It’s nothing that spectacular,” he replied. “There are people in need here, and I can help them. I don’t need a reason to help people. Helping them with a reward in mind isn’t the best thing for them, either.”
“Of course. Then how, Master Shizu?”
“Persuasion,” he replied tersely.
“I don’t believe the villagers will welcome your decision. They’ll worry that your attempt will only provoke the men into massacring the people.”
“You’re right. Which is why tomorrow I’ll be a traveler acting for his own reasons. And besides, I’m not completely decided yet.”
“What do you mean?”
“If I can’t persuade them, I’ll have to turn tail and run as fast as I can,” Master Shizu joked. He added, “Which is why I can’t blame this country or the people. Some people just aren’t cut out for certain things.”
“Do you like this country?” I asked.
Master Shizu put on a slight smile. “I don’t know.”
The next day.
The villagers bolted their doors and windows at the crack of dawn. The weather was beautiful, but not a soul was on the streets.
We were told to take shelter as well, but Master Shizu declined. We waited in our room.
Master Shizu wore a waterproof parka with a hole in the left side, and put his goggles around his neck.
Each goggle lens was protected by a film with a roll case. If the goggles happened to get dirty, Master Shizu would pull the strings on the cases to roll up the film and clear up his vision in an instant.
Master Shizu looked out at the plaza, holding his favorite sword.
Left for the bandits were crates of food and a live mountain goat. The gates were open.
I did as Master Shizu instructed and curled up at his feet, waiting.
I heard hooves approaching around noon. They were headed in our direction.
“They’re here,” said Master Shizu. I rose as well.
Men on horseback came trotting through the gates. They ranged in age from their twenties to their fifties. All were in messy but comfortable clothing, and armed with rifle-type persuaders.
Without a care in the world, they came inside and reached the plaza. Then they disembarked. Soon the tiny plaza was packed with men and horses.
The men roared in triumph when they spotted the food. They began to secure the crates.
“Twenty-two,” said Master Shizu.
“Yes. And all grown men.”
“I expected as much. Most of their persuaders are rifles. Perfect.”
“Will you be going?” I asked.
Master Shizu put on his goggles and stuck his sword in his belt.
I watched him walk towards the plaza from behind a building.
The bandits were bewildered when they spotted Master Shizu, who made for a comical sight in his parka and goggles, armed with his sword. Several of them loaded their persuaders.
“Hello,” Master Shizu said casually as he approached the men. A bearded, middle-aged man who had not been helping the others secure the crates waved to the others. Everyone but the one person whose rifle was trained on Master Shizu went back to work.
“You’re not from here. Are you, boy?” said the bearded man. Master Shizu stopped a short distance from the bandits.
“That’s right. I’m a traveler. I arrived here just yesterday.”
“I don’t know if you’re aware, but we’re doing this with the villagers’ consent. So I don’t want to see your ridiculous goggles and sword get in our way.”
“You won’t,” Master Shizu said. He then added, “But could I ask you to stop what you are doing? You are making the villagers’ lives difficult. That is why I came to speak to you.”
“Oh? Did they ask you to do this?” asked the bearded man.
“No. They did not.”
The bearded man stared in disbelief. “Boy. You are not going to survive long in this world, that’s all I can say.”
“Only a fool picks a fight he can’t win,” the bearded man advised and threatened at the same time. “And people tend to die when they fight losing battles. I’m speaking from experience, boy.”
“You’re right. Could I ask for an answer now?” Master Shizu said, taking a discreet half-step forward.
“I asked you if you could stop this.”
The bearded man guffawed and pointed at Master Shizu. An order to shoot.
The man next to him opened fire, aiming for Master Shizu’s heart. Master Shizu pulled his scabbard with his left hand and drew with his right. The blade deflected the round.
Master Shizu leapt forward two paces and tackled the man who had shot at him, and pushed his sword into his heart. Then he pushed away the body with his left hand, pulled out his sword, and severed the bearded man’s neck, then cut down the man who was standing behind him. The bearded man’s head landed on the ground. It all took less than four seconds.
Blood splattered next to Master Shizu, but his parka protected him from the spray. Three bodies collapsed.
Several of the bandits stared, frozen in confusion. They did not understand what was happening.
“Y-y-y-you…” one stammered. “You bastard!”
The words he finally managed turned out to be his last. Master Shizu’s blade slit his belly.
In the blink of an eye, Master Shizu charged at the men securing the crates. He cut them down one after another, almost as if to a rhythm.
One man went down, and the next found a sword in his neck. The third man collapsed with a horizontal cut across his gut. The fourth man lost his head and arm. His crate fell and hit his shoulder.
Not stopping for a moment, Master Shizu swiveled around and cut the fifth man in half.
By the time the fifth man’s upper body hit the ground, Master Shizu had crossed the plaza and taken cover beside a building.
One of the quicker bandits opened fire, but he was too late. Master Shizu was safely hidden.
Eight bodies—or bodies-to-be—littered the plaza. The remaining bandits howled madly.
“Damn it!” “Kill him!” “After him!” “Bastard!” “Shoot him down!”
I left cover and went around the plaza to follow Master Shizu. I spotted him hiding in a narrow alley.
He shooed me away when I tried to approach. I stayed back.
The barrel of a long persuader was poking out form behind an alley corner. Master Shizu grabbed it and pulled, then stabbed the neck of the man who was dragged out with it. The man pulled the trigger, but the bullet flew off in a wildly different direction and hit a wall.
“Did you get him?” asked another bandit from across the way.
“Yeah,” Master Shizu replied. He pushed the body into the alley and swiftly followed around the corner. He was out of my line of sight.
I heard two voices. Master Shizu came back around the corner, shaking blood off his sword. I went to his side. “That makes three more, then. Am I halfway there?” he asked.
Master Shizu took off silently down the alley. I followed.
He stopped at an intersection between two wider alleys. I could hear the bandits from the plaza saying, “Someone opened fire!” “Did he get him?”
I ducked and peered in the direction of the plaza. Three men were coming, persuaders at the ready.
I told Master Shizu how many of them were approaching. He waited a moment, considered the timing, and gently stepped on my hind leg.
I leapt out from behind the corner.
“Whoa!” one of the men cried, taking aim.
I rushed across the alley and disappeared into another.
“Damn it. Just a mutt.” “Hey, focus!”
The men drew closer. Master Shizu bolted forward. The man in the lead went down, blood gushing from his neck before he could scream. The second man took an elbow to the jaw as Master Shizu thrusted, leaving a gaping wound in his side.
The third man took aim with a hand persuader. Master Shizu pushed one of the near-corpses forward.
The third man pulled the trigger, but he was too close. Master Shizu left his line of sight with a simple step and swung. A pair of hands fell to the ground, still gripping the hand persuader.
The third man looked at his hands. Blood was spewing in time with his heartbeat. Master Shizu grabbed his collar with his left hand and dragged him into the alley I was in.
The man swung his arms helplessly. That was when I spotted a figure between their legs, taking aim at Master Shizu.
A bullet cut through the air and smashed open a human head. The man Master Shizu had dragged in lost half his skull. Master Shizu dropped his human shield and joined me in the alley. Several bullets drove themselves in a nearby wall.
Master Shizu leapt into another alley and pulled on the roller case strings to clear the blood from his goggles. He also wiped the brain fluid from his cheek.
Master Shizu and I made our way to a confusing stretch of the road, which twisted in strange directions every other step. He shook blood off his parka and doubled back around the same area several times.
Then he leaned against a house on the corner and waited in silence.
Soon, I heard two voices.
“Let’s get outta here. He even got the boss.”
“We’re not letting him get away with this. I swear, I am going to slaughter the bastard!”
“Shut your hole!”
Master Shizu stood quietly, waiting. Their footsteps drew near.
The men followed the bloodstains to a three-way fork, taking the opposite route. Master Shizu leapt out, chucked their heading, and gave chase.
He caught up to them two corners later. Master Shizu was so close that he almost looked like he was part of their group.
Master Shizu covered the mouth of one of the men and stabbed him in the side.
Pushing away the man who died silently, he grabbed the other man and killed him in the same way.
Master Shizu left the alley—which was perfect for hide-and-seek—and quickly made his way for the street, never for a moment letting his guard down.
I almost ran into him when he stopped.
“Damn it. Another dead end.” “This way!”
Anxious voices followed several rushed footsteps.
Master Shizu followed the source of the voices. Two men were running for the plaza. Master Shizu intentionally caught up to them and raised his voice. “Will you stop this now?”
The two bandits turned in shock. One opened fire, his first shot missing by a mile and his second shot easily dodged by Master Shizu.
He gestured for me to stay where I was, and disappeared into another alley.
The man with the persuader was getting closer. His companion grabbed his shoulder. “Leave him!”
“Are you serious?!”
“He’s got the upper hand here! We have to lure him out!”
A reasonable response. Master Shizu knew the complicated alleys by heart and could kill without a sound. The bandits, on the other hand, had long, unwieldy persuaders whose noises could not be hidden.
That was when Master Shizu leapt out of a corner and beheaded the cleverer of the two men.
The other man stared in horror and was stabbed through the heart.
“None left in this area, Master Shizu,” I said, following after him.
“It’ll be trouble if we let any of them get away.”
Master Shizu sprinted towards the gates. Then he took cover behind the house nearest to the gates and scanned the plaza.
Four men stood there, along with their horses and multiple bodies. Three of the men were forcing supplies onto their horses, even trying to drag away the struggling mountain goat.
“Cowards! Running off on your own?!” one of them cried.
The first man tried to drag one of his companions off his horse, but took two revolver shots to the chest.
“Three left,” said Master Shizu.
A second later, another man rode for the gates.
Master Shizu guessed that he would pass in front of him and took several steps back. Then he ran towards the house.
Master Shizu jumped onto the wall and held out his sword. The blade grazed the horse’s ears and beheaded the rider.
The headless rider continued for some time until the horse stopped. Then he fell to the ground.
Master Shizu landed. “Two left,” he said, slowly walking into the open.
The remaining bandits were just about to climb onto their horses, having fully loaded them. They froze when they noticed their headless companion and the undaunted Master Shizu.
“D-die!” cried the one who killed his own companion, taking aim. Master Shizu kept his gaze trained on him. The man pulled the trigger.
The first two rounds missed. The third stopped at Master Shizu’s shoulder and the fourth at his side, both deflected against his blade.
Master Shizu walked without so much as blinking. The men pulled the trigger again and again, terrified.
Soon, the persuaders were reduced to clicking.
The man ejected the empty magazine and reached for a spare on his belt.
But his trembling fingers could not load the magazine. His hands and teeth were chattering.
Master Shizu drew closer and closer.
“No! Get back!”
The man dropped his magazine; bullets scattered across the plaza.
The man finally threw the revolver. It flew through the air and landed on the ground. Master Shizu was already out of his sight.
The man’s eyes were comically wide. For a split second, they met mine. The man behind him, who had been standing frozen, fell to the ground with blood gushing out of his neck.
Master Shizu had his sword on the back of the survivor’s neck. “Are there any more of you out there?” he asked.
The man stood stiff and replied, “N-n-n-n-no! There aren’t!”
“Will any groups or countries be looking for you if you were to disappear?”
“You’re not trained soldiers. Why did you pillage this country?”
“B-because it was so easy. I used to be a farmer. But it was backbreaking work… And I was exiled, too…”
“Which is why you started taking advantage of this little village?”
“Y-yes. Put yourself in my shoes! It’s hard making a living!”
“You’re right. It is hard to survive out there.”
The man turned, glad that Master Shizu agreed. An awkward smile rose to his face. “R-right?”
Master Shizu smiled. “You won’t have to worry anymore.”
The awkward smile hit the ground.
Master Shizu calmed down the panicking horses and tied them to a nearby post. Then he took off his goggles and wiped his face. He even took off the parka and wrapped it up, putting it down with the goggles in a clean section of the plaza.
“Master Shizu,” I said.
“Excellent work, Master.”
“Oh, Riku,” Master Shizu said with a bitter chuckle. “I don’t think being good at murder is something to be praised for.”
It was quite some time later that the villagers crept out of their homes.
Master Shizu had cleaned his sword, sheathed it, and was waiting calmly in the plaza.
People began screaming when they found the corpses in the streets.
Soon, they villagers swarmed the plaza. Everyone stayed on the outskirts because the plaza itself was piled with bodies and stained a deep red. There were no children outside.
The people kept their distance, staring at Master Shizu in shock.
“Did you do all this, Traveler? With one sword?” asked a man.
Master Shizu stood. “Yes.”
“Y-you killed all of them?” asked another man. He seemed neither happy nor sad.
“Yes, all twenty-two of them,” Master Shizu replied. “They have no allies. You will not need to leave offerings for anyone now. You can go back to living in peace.”
Relief flooded the plaza.
But it was soon replaced by another emotion. People looked at Master Shizu differently now. The men were whispering amongst themselves.
Master Shizu closed his eyes. He had been half-expecting this response.
“This is too gruesome,” said one man.
Another agreed. “Yes. It’s too much. You went too far.”
“You didn’t have to kill, much less slaughter them all! Don’t you think so, everyone?”
The other villagers nodded, growing angry. Their icy gazes were all on Master Shizu.
One of the men stepped forward. “Traveler, do you realize what you’ve done? You’ve committed murder!”
Master Shizu listened without a word.
“We…our country does not permit inflicting harm on anyone, no matter the reason. And as for murder, it is a grave crime indeed. It is unacceptable. Don’t you agree, everyone?”
The villagers voiced their agreement, growing more restless.
“We are different from you, Traveler,” said the man, “We cannot condone any act of violence. We never asked you to kill these people.”
“Indeed you didn’t. I was acting independently,” Master Shizu said to the people glaring at him.
The man continued. “We cannot permit you to stay here any longer, Traveler. I speak for all of us when I say you must our country at once.”
Master Shizu nodded. “I understand. Please bring me my bag. I left it at the assembly hall.”
Soon, someone came back with Master Shizu’s things. Master Shizu thanked him and slung his parka and goggles over the bag. Then he hefted the bag, still swearing his sword on his belt. “I apologize, but I’ll have to ask you to clean up the bodies yourselves. The persuaders and horses are intact and unharmed, all completely usable. They are all yours.”
No one responded.
“Thank you for letting us stay the night. If you’ll excuse us.”
Master Shizu bowed at the glaring villagers.
“Let’s go, Riku.”
He began to walk away, towards the open gates.
Master Shizu’s buggy was driving through the woods, slower than usual. Sunlight filtered in through the leaves.
When I turned, I could not see the country in the valley.
“Are you disappointed, Master Shizu?”
He shook his head. Master Shizu did not look any different from usual.
“It’s their country. And their choice to make, which I have to respect,” he said, and added, “I’m not needed there anymore, and that’s reason enough.”
“It almost feels as if they took advantage of you,” I said. But Master Shizu shook his head.
“Yeah. They’re strong people.”
I asked, “Did you like this country?”
Master Shizu put on a slight smile.
“I don’t know.”
* * *
Chapter 10: The Bridge Country
A lone motorrad was crossing the desert.
The motorrad’s luggage rack was laden with travel gear that threatened to spill over the sides of its rear wheel. It traveled northward, leaving behind tire tracks on the hard, sandy beach.
To the left of the motorrad was a clear sea that seemed to go on forever. To its right was a vast desert littered with dunes. All around was nothing but sand and water.
The motorrad’s rider was wearing a black jacket and a thick belt. On her right thigh was a holstered hand persuader—a large-caliber revolver.
The rider wore a hat with ear flaps and silver-rimmed goggles. She was in her mid-teens, or perhaps a little older.
Suddenly, the rider tapped on the motorrad’s tank and pointed at the distance.
A white line seemed to hover over the sea, like a haze. As they drew near, they spotted countless pillars supporting the line. It was a bridge.
Piers stood at regular intervals in the sea, supporting the arches that made up the bridge. It was wide enough for two cars to pass by with ease, and about a person’s jumping height from the surface of the water.
The bridge started in the middle of the desert and went due west. It disappeared into the horizon.
The motorrad arrived at the bridge. The rider disembarked and looked up.
She had been looking for the bridge. Smiling, she explained that this bridge would lead them to the next continent without incurring them a fee.
The motorrad was suspicious. Why was there a magnificent bridge out here, in the middle of nowhere? And where had the countless white stones that composed it come from?
The rider replied that none of the travelers who told her about the bridge knew the answer. And she added that the important thing was that the bridge existed. The motorrad agreed.
When the motorrad asked if they would be able to cross within the day, the rider admitted that it would be difficult to cover the distance. They would camp on the bridge overnight.
The rider straddled the motorrad again and began the crossing.
Small stones paved the bridge’s surface, each filed to perfection. The motorrad moved smoothly down the length of the structure. The sculpted stone railings lining the bridge were works of art.
Soon, the rider and the motorrad found themselves in the middle of the sea. The white bridge cut across the shining blue waters. The bridge continued into the horizon.
The motorrad continued to roar westward.
The sun eventually began to set. When it began to cast a golden glow on the bridge and the ocean, the rider stopped the motorrad.
At night, the sea was dark and still. Innumerable stars dotted the sky. The rider complained about the stars making it too bright to sleep, putting a blanket on the bridge to sleep on.
The next day, the rider rose at dawn. The sky was a faint purple.
The rider did light exercises and trained with the persuader she kept strapped on her right thigh. Then she ate portable rations for breakfast, got water from the can tied to the top of her bag, then fueled the motorrad.
When the sun rose, the cloudless sky and the calm sea turned blue. The rider smacked the motorrad awake and resumed her westward journey.
Around noon, the motorrad suddenly told the rider to stop.
The rider hit the brakes. The motorrad stopped in the middle of the sea crossing.
The motorrad had found something. The rider turned and went back a short distance. The motorrad told the rider to look at the railings. They did not look any different from the rest. The rider was wondered what the motorrad was talking about.
The motorrad explained that words were carved into the railings. The rider disembarked and examined the railings. She took off her gloves and ran her fingers over them.
She could tell that something had been carved there, but much of it had been eroded away. The motorrad volunteered to read it for her. He explained that the words—the sentences—continued down the railings.
The rider thought for a moment. She said that she did not want to waste her time, so she would listen to the first part before deciding whether to hear the rest.
The motorrad agreed and read the beginning.
‘We must accomplish our mission—the mission to build a bridge in this place. On these railings, I now leave behind a record of what we did and why. It will serve as our testament to those who will one day cross this bridge.’
Immediately, the rider shut off the motorrad’s engine. There was a moment of complete and utter silence.
The rider pushed the motorrad to the next set of railings. She asked him to read the rest of the story.
‘We lived on the coast on the east side of this bridge. We had walls and a country to call our own. For a very long time, none of us had any clue why we were living in a desolate desert. But no one was concerned. We ate fish every day and lived happy lives full of singing and dancing.
‘Near our country were gargantuan structures we call “pyramids”. They were built with white stone blocks stacked neatly on top of one another. We did not know when these structures were built, or why. But we found the pyramids very useful. We used the stone blocks to build houses and pave roads and repair the ramparts.
‘One day, one of our countrymen found something at the bottom of the sea. We dragged it up together and found that it was some sort of a safe. When we pried it open, we found countless documents inside. It was a disappointment, as we had been hoping for valuables.
‘But when we had a close look at the documents, we found something even more valuable than any treasure. We learned why we were here. We learned of our purpose. Of what we have been doing. And of what we must do.
‘One of the documents was a plan for a bridge. It was a beautiful stone arch bridge that would connect our land to the continent beyond the horizon. The plan was massive in scale, involving the construction of countless piers in the sea. It also came with the many blueprints we would need to build the structure.
‘Another document detailed two important facts: the first was that the materials for the bridge would be piled on the beach by the build site, and the second was that imprisoned criminals would be moved to the construction site to provide manual labor. Once the bridge was completed, the convicts would be released and permitted to return to the motherland.
‘We were here for a mission. We had to build a bridge. But we had ignored this calling and wasted our days eating fish, singing, and dancing. We were here for one purpose: to build the bridge detailed in the plans. The country was in agreement. We had detailed blueprints. We had the materials. We had more manpower than our forebears. We were both willing and able.
‘If someone came for us after we finished the bridge, each individual would be free to decide whether to remain here or to go back to the motherland. We set out with hope in our hearts.
‘Construction was slow but steady. We followed the blueprints to the letter and made the pillars out of stones that could float and be sunk. Those stones, we retrieved from inside the pyramids. We floated the stones into the open sea, moved them to their places, and drilled holes into them to sink them. When we poured sand into the completed foundations, we found ourselves with strong, sturdy piers to sustain the bridge. We rejoiced at the completion of each pier. And we began to lay stones atop them.
‘Those with a talent for diving would go into the water to help build the piers. Others would move the stones on the beach. The strong would help pile the stones on top of another. The skilled would polish and pave the surfaces of the stones. Some caught even more fish than before on the bridge to keep the rest of us fed. Others would cook those fish. We assigned different tasks to those with the right talents and pressed forward. Each and every day was more fulfilling than the last.’
The motorrad paused there. The amazed rider ran her hands over the paving stones, tapped on the railings, and looked down at the piers.
The motorrad asked if he should read more, or stop because the mystery had been solved.
The rider wanted more of the story. What had happened to the country? And where had its people gone? Had they returned to their motherland?
The motorrad continued.
‘It was much later, when the children born at the start of our labors were beginning to join us in the construction efforts, that we came to a horrifying realization. We did not have enough materials to complete the bridge. We quickly understood why. We had used those materials to repair our homes and ramparts. Everyone was ashamed. Seized by the fear that we would never be able to complete the bridge.
‘There was only one solution. We began to dismantle houses to use the stones for their rightful purpose. Efficiency fell because processing the used stones took more time. Those left without homes had to move in with other families. But no sacrifice was too great for our task.
‘When we had no more houses left to dismantle, we turned to the walls. We cut into them with frugal caution. It was not a terrible concern, because we had no enemies to invade in the first place. But the country began to turn into a desert. We took down the walls and used the stones from them to build new homes on the bridge. We continued construction from our new homes on the sea.
‘Eventually, our country had no more buildings or walls left standing. It was once again a barren desert. But we continued undaunted. Slowly but surely we made progress, constantly haunted by the fear of running out of materials.
‘One day, we finally caught sight of something on the horizon. The desert on the other side of the sea. Words cannot express the sheer elation we felt at the momentous occasion.
‘We used up the rest of our materials to complete the final pier. We were all convinced of our success. There would be just enough stones to complete the project. We dismantled our houses one by one. We slept under the stars. Some became ill from exposure, but that was a small price to pay.
‘By the time we were completely out of stones, we knew exactly in what ways the bridge was complete and incomplete.
‘The bridge was finished. Except for one part. The very center, where the final house had stood. We realized when we went to pick up the last of the stones that this final area was a rugged and sunken pit. It was a foolish oversight.
‘The pit was much too long and wide to serve its function as part of a bridge. We needed to acquire more stone to fill it in. But there was none to be found in the desert. And none we could shave away from other sections of the bridge.
‘We experimented with multiple techniques. We tried to create bricks, but the sand would not solidify. We tried filling the pit with sand and dousing it with water. People sank when they tried to cross. We even considered going to another land to get more stone. But it was impossible.
‘For some time, we idly chastised ourselves for our foolishness. There should have been more than enough stone to spare at first. But we had wasted it all on our houses and walls. It was all our own fault. We stared in despair at the pit that left the bridge incomplete.
‘It was just one pit. Only one hole that needed filling. Then the bridge would be finished. We needed something that could take the place of stone—hard and sturdy enough to bear weight. We thought and agonized for some time before finally arriving at a magnificent solution. It was so simple; how had we not noticed? The materials had been on hand all this time.
‘We first picked out the women and elders, who were weak and could not contribute to the efforts. We stripped away their flesh and found ourselves with a large quantity of hard, white bones. The final ingredient. We laid them carefully in the pit to leave no gaps.
‘Slowly, we filled the pit. After the women and elders were the children. Children’s bones were too small and brittle, but their flesh was perfect for fishing.
‘Finally, we settled on an order and killed the men, one after another. Men had strong, sturdy bones. We made rapid progress and celebrated each time the pit grew smaller. We set the arms and legs and ribs together, and filled the gaps with finely crushed skulls. Work progressed smoothly.
‘Finally, the pit was filled. I am the last one remaining, but that is of no concern. I can finish the work myself. I simply need to insert one spine in the gap and polish its surface to match the rest of the bridge. Yes. The bridge has been completed. I leave this tale here. In other words—’
How did the sentence end, asked the rider. The motorrad replied that that was the end of the sentence.
He explained that the final man’s whereabouts were unknown, but there was a clue.
When the rider asked what the clue was, the motorrad told the rider to look down. Just ahead, the paving stones looked slightly different. The rider squatted and examined the surface carefully, before exclaiming out loud.
A human spine was carefully laid there. It was carved into a pattern, the gaps filled in with thinner pieces of bone and finished with a smooth polish.
The rider looked up. The spine continued for a short distance before giving way to stone.
The rider stood on the white line on the ocean and fell into thought. Her gaze was on the distance.
Eventually, she declared to the motorrad that they would camp there for the night.
The motorrad was shocked. He asked her why. The rider replied that she wanted to follow her usual rule.
As the motorrad wondered what she meant, the rider propped him up on his center stand and unloaded her gear from the luggage rack.
I’m in the mood for fish today, the rider said, rummaging through one of the compartments hanging beside the motorrad’s rear wheel for a fishing line and a hook.
The motorrad pointed out that she did not have a fishing rod.
The rider opened up her bag. Near the mouth was a dismantled rifle-type persuader. She pulled out the parts, put them together, and secured them with the pin. Then she tied the fishing line at the end of the barrel and added a sinker, hook, and bell to the other end of the line.
The motorrad noted that her master would be sad to see her persuader used this way.
The rider cut up a some of her portable rations into small pieces, put a piece onto the hook, and cast the line into the water. She sat on the railing. The rider took off her hat and lazily looked up at the blue sky. Slowly, she stretched.
Can you really land something with that, asked the motorrad.
I don’t know, the rider replied.
A long white line cut across the blue sea.
It was a great, majestic bridge. On the bridge stood a motorrad. Next to the motorrad, a person fishing with a rifle.
On that stretch of the bridge, the paving stones were slightly different from the rest. They were of a slightly different hue, drawing massive letters in the bridge when seen from overhead.
It was the end of the sentence on the railing.
‘we have done it.’
* * *
Chapter 11: The Tower Country
Once upon a time, there was a traveler named Kino. Kino was young by human standards, but she was unbeatable with the persuader.
Kino’s partner was a motorrad named Hermes. Kino had changed his rear seat into a luggage rack for her travel bags. They were visiting all sorts of different countries together.
One day, Kino and Hermes spotted a very, very tall tower in the distance, beyond the woods. The tower was so tall that it looked like a line coming down from the clouds.
Kino and Hermes went towards the tower and found a country surrounded by walls, and the base of the brick tower.
When they went inside the country, they found the people still hard at work.
“Welcome, Traveler. Feel free to look around,” said a villager. Kino greeted him and said, “This is a magnificent tower you’re building. Could I ask how long it took you to get it this far, and why you’re working on it?”
“It’s been 230 years since we started on this tower. But not even we know why we’re building it,” the villager said. Then he added, “That’s because we’ve been building towers since before we had a writing system. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? We are happy to be able to work on this tower. That’s more than enough.”
The next day, Kino woke up at sunrise.
Hermes was a sleepyhead, so Kino had to smack him awake when the sun was high up in the sky. They went to see the tower together. The weather was clear that day, so they could just make out the top of the tower.
Nearby, people were drying clay from a river to make into bricks. They took the bricks up the stairs in the tower and kept building up and up and up. Sometimes, parts of the tower weren’t made correctly and ended up falling without warning. The falling bricks were very, very dangerous.
Kino looked very carefully at the tower, at every nook and cranny.
Hermes knew more about buildings that most people. He said to Kino, “Kino, this tower is going to fall. The bricks in the foundation are cracked. One strong breeze, and the whole building will come crashing down.”
Kino nodded quietly. And she didn’t tell the villagers anything.
That night, there was a terrible storm.
The next day. It was the third day of Kino and Hermes’ stay in the country.
Kino was having a buffet breakfast in the village when she heard a commotion.
Someone cried, “The tower is falling! It’s going westward! Get out of there!”
Kino and Hermes and everyone at the inn rushed outside. The tower was slowly falling.
When the cracked foundation crumbled, and the tower could not stand. Most of the bricks fell to the west as it slowly, very slowly collapsed completely.
There was a loud noise. The dust cleared. Where the tower had been before was now a mountain of bricks.
Kino and Hermes went to the tower.
Many people were there, cheering and dancing on the bricks.
“It’s down! It’s down!”
“Finally, after 230 years!”
“I can’t believe it fell in our lifetime! I can’t believe I got to see it with my own eyes!”
One person said to Kino, “Traveler! The tower’s finally fallen. It’s such an honor to have seen it collapse in person.”
“What will you do now?” asked Hermes.
The villager replied, “Build another one, of course! This time, we’ll make one that lasts 300 years.”
“I see,” said Kino.
Soon, the people got together and started discussing their plans.
“I knew it. We need bigger bricks for the foundation. This time, we’ll make the base larger and have the tower taper off as it goes further up.”
“We have to take the wind into account too. How about we polish the outer bricks to a shine? It might reduce wind resistance.”
“What about the planning stage, then? We’ll spend the next ten years clearing out the bricks and making blueprints. Then we’ll dedicate twenty years to baking bricks for the foundation, and build the foundation in less than thirty. Then we’ll just have to keep going up and up and up.”
Kino waved to the people as they planned for their exciting new project. “We’ll be leaving now. Good luck, everyone.”
Everyone waved back, smiling. Kino and Hermes turned to go back to the inn.
That was when one man spoke to Kino, anxious. He said that he had a favor to ask. Kino asked him what he wanted.
“You have to get me out of here!” he said.
When Kino asked him why, the man replied,
“I don’t want to live in this country anymore. It’s foolish, spending your life building a tower that’s going to fall. I’m sick of it.”
Kino didn’t say anything.
“Don’t you think this is a strange country too, Traveler? You think they’re all crazy, right? You can be honest with me!”
Kino replied honestly, “I’m not sure. Are they the crazy ones, or are you?”
The man asked, almost in tears, “I’m begging you. Take me with you, please. I can’t spend the rest of my life in a place like this. You have to help me.”
Kino replied that she could not. The man said that he would make her take him away, even if he had to use force. “You’ll do what I say if you know what’s good for—” was as far as he got before Kino flashed him her persuader, saying that she didn’t want to make trouble for either of them. The man stopped.
He fell to his knees and began to sob.
“I can’t go on like this… There’s no freedom in this country. Anyone who opposes building the tower loses his citizenship and becomes a living pillar. What am I supposed to do?”
Kino asked Hermes what a living pillar was. Hermes explained that it was a person buried alive in the foundation. Kino nodded.
The man was still crying. “I don’t want to spend my life building a tower. I want to do something else, but I don’t have the freedom. There’s no such thing in this country. I want to be free.”
Kino looked at Hermes, then whispered to the man, “If you don’t want to build a tower, then how about you become a carver and carve beautiful patterns into bricks?”
The man turned. His teary eyes turned to dinner plates.
“Yes! That sounds perfect! From now on, I’ll be a carver. I’ll be a free man, carving patterns into bricks to my heart’s content!”
The man got up and ran to the other people. “Listen, everyone! From now on, I’m going to be a carver. I’m going to make beautiful patterns in each and every brick you bake!”
“That’s a great idea!”
“Yes! We can use your bricks for the stairs! It’s going to be lovely!”
“Wonderful idea! We’ll leave the carving work to you!”
The man smiled, embarrassed.
Kino and Hermes left. They went back to the inn, packed up, and left the country.
Kino’s journey continues, but this is the end of this story.
* * *
Epilogue: Amidst a Sea of Red・A
The country was in ruins.
Instead of protecting the city, the stone walls were scattered everywhere. Instead of being closed, the gates lay fallen on the ground.
Not a single building had been spared. The windows were shattered, the ceilings sunken, and the walls had collapsed. Some houses had been burned to the ground. A tower had collapsed on top of several buildings. Ruined buildings left mountains of bricks that blocked off roads.
The sky was a clear blue. The desolate streets were silent.
Hermes stood propped up on his center stand in a patch of earth near the western gates.
There was no one around him.
“I’m bored,” he finally mumbled.
Someone’s footsteps began to sound from the distance. Soon, Kino returned.
Kino was wearing her brown coat. Her hat, shoulders, and shoes were covered in dirt. She holstered Cannon.
“Well, Kino?” asked Hermes.
“Not a soul. I saw some bones here and there, but I think most of them must be under the rubble,” she replied indifferently, dusting herself off.
“I wonder what it was. An earthquake? A tornado? Any ideas?”
“None,” Kino said tersely, and put on her coat before climbing on. “There’s nothing more to do here. No need to ever come back.”
Kino started Hermes. The roar of the engine filled the deserted streets.
Putting on her hat and goggles, Kino took one more look at the ruins.
Then she took off.
Kino and Hermes traveled down the deserted road and emerged out the gates.
They followed the road into gentle, rolling slopes that seemed to go on forever.
“Kino,” said Hermes.
“What’re you going to do now?”
“I don’t know,” Kino replied, falling into thought.
They climbed up a high hill and reached the top.
“Maybe I’ll sing,” she concluded.
Before them was a world of red. The land was covered in red flowers in full bloom, from the top of the hill to the very edge of the horizon.
Kino took Hermes into the sea of red, through the flowers. Eventually, she stopped and shut off the engine.
“Whoa!” Hermes cried. Kino tipped him over on his side. And she followed him down.
Red petals flew into the air.
“That wasn’t very nice,” Hermes lectured jokingly. “Who could have tipped me over, I wonder?”
“Aha ha ha!” Kino laughed, looking up at the sky. She took a deep breath.
And she began to sing.