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Chapter 4: The Heroes’ Country
Breath puffing into the air, Kino unloaded her things from Hermes. She was wearing her hat and black jacket with a pair of goggles on her eyes. Cannon was holstered to her thigh.
She opened her suitcase. A dismantled rifle-type persuader was secured to the inside of the lid.
“I can’t believe you get to use it already, Kino.”
“Yeah. I wish it didn’t have to be this soon.”
The rifle was in two parts—front and back. The back consisted of a wooden stock and a scope, and the front was a metallic black frame with a long cylinder.
“I count seven of them.”
Kino put together the halves of the rifle and secured them together. She hooked the leather strap on the back half to the front, and took out a shoulder bag from one of Hermes’ compartments. Taking out a nine-round magazine from inside the bag, Kino loaded it into the rifle.
“By the way, what’re you gonna call it?”
“Flute,” she replied, operating the bolt. The first round was chambered. Slinging the bag crossways, Kino secured it to her belt to keep it from dangling. She then took out a spare magazine for Cannon. “Hermes.”
“If I don’t come back, find yourself a new rider.”
“Okay. I’d prefer not to switch owners, though.”
Kino placed a hand on Cannon, which was still holstered. “I’ll try.” She put the spare magazine in her pocket.
“In case you don’t come back—bye, Kino.”
“Good luck. No need to pick up any souvenirs for me,” Hermes said without an ounce of worry.
“Yeah. I’ll be back,” Kino replied with a grim smile.
Slowly, Kino peered out the corner.
She was taking cover behind an arch that led into a courtyard surrounded by identical houses. Hermes was parked discreetly in the courtyard.
Heavy clouds hung in the sky. Cold gusts battered the streets from time to time.
The three-story brick houses stood in the deserted city, their windows shattered. Weeds that had sprouted between the paving stones lay limp and withered on the ground.
Kino rushed out and sprinted to the building across the street.
She took cover by the stairs to the front door; a bullet narrowly missed her. Flying faster than the speed of sound, it tore through the air with a monstrous noise.
“There,” Kino mumbled, eyes on the man with the rifle across the street.
She turned and disappeared behind the building.
“Missed. He’s fast,” said the tall man.
“He’s young. Must’ve ditched the motorrad… He’s got a rifle. Watch yourselves,” said the man with the binoculars. The others nodded.
There were seven men in all. A bald man, a short man, a bearded man, a muscular man, a man wearing a hat, a tall, skinny man, and a man with a large backpack.
All were over the age of fifty and wearing messy patched-up outfits. They wore thick navy pants and jackets, and belts with magazine pouches around their waists and chests. The bald man had a holstered hand persuader at his right side.
The men were all equipped with manual bolt-action rifle-type persuaders with wooden stocks.
The tall man, who had just opened fire, operated the bolt with an expert hand. His was the only persuader equipped with a scope.
The bald man said, “After him.”
The men held their persuaders at waist-level as they made their way forward, hugging the walls on either side of the street.
They passed the courtyard where Hermes was parked and quietly peered into the alley Kino had rushed into. There was no cover.
The bald man gestured with his left hand. The others followed his order, covering one another in pairs as they moved forward.
They made it out of the narrow alley and emerged into the next street, which looked little different from the previous one. There was no one there.
Taking the lead was the man in the hat. He noticed indistinct footprints in the ground, and returned to the others taking cover in the alley. “He’s headed east,” he reported to the bald man.
“East? The streets are wide there. Not much cover,” said the man with the backpack.
“But he doesn’t know that,” the short man laughed. “Perfect.”
“No. He’s going downwind. Making sure we don’t pick up on his noise, and he picks up all the sound we make,” said the tall man. A gust of wind blew into the alley and created a small tornado, kicking up dust.
The men breathed silently and exchanged glances.
The bald man nodded several times. “Don’t let your guard down. He’s more clever than he looks. He’ll try to make a run for it through the eastern gate. Kill him on sight.”
“Okay.” “Right,” the others responded tensely.
The street lined with residences led due east. It forked left and right just ahead of a park dotted with dead trees.
The men split up into two teams and stalked along the buildings. They could see the park in the distance.
The man in the hat was in the lead, following the trail of footsteps. He had his persuader held ready at waist-level.
Quietly, the men pressed on. They could clearly make out the withered trees as they neared the park. The man in the hat suddenly stopped. He held up his left fist, and the others stopped on high alert. The two at the very back turned and prepared to open fire at a moment’s notice.
The man in the hat scrutinized the footprints.
They stopped abruptly in front of him. There was no sign that their target had jumped, or any signs of places someone could jump onto.
He took four slow steps backwards. Placing his own foot over his own footprint, he compared the depths of the marks they had left behind. Then he turned and cautiously walked back. The other men watched in complete silence.
When he looked up, he found himself before a dark alley. The entrance was blocked by a mound of collapsed roof tiles.
The man in the hat took aim at the alley.
His right thigh burst, scattering flesh and blood into the air.
The silence was broken by his scream and the sound of his body hitting the floor.
“He’s sniping!” cried the muscular man, who had been taking cover behind a wall. The others plastered themselves against the walls and got to the ground. The man who had been shot twisted, lying on his back and pressing on his thigh. Blood gushed between his fingers.
“Where’s he shooting from?!” the bald man demanded.
Grimacing, the man in the hat raised his right hand to point at their target. A second shot smashed into his left kneecap.
The man writhed and rolled over onto his stomach. Both legs were bleeding, and he was trembling.
“Damn it! Where is he?!”
“I didn’t hear any shots!”
“Where’s he shooting from?”
The men clung to the walls, looking straight ahead.
Kino peered into Flute’s scope from next to the collapsed roof tiles. The cylinder from earlier was stuck near the muzzle of the persuader, muffling most of the noise.
Through the scope, she could see the thoroughfare outside the dark, narrow alley. And the man lying there.
His mouth opened.
The man on the ground screamed. His arms twitched in an attempt to drag the rest of him to safety, but could not muster the strength.
“Hold on, I’m coming!” the muscular man cried, putting down his persuader and unbuckling his magazine belts. And he rushed forward to save his friend.
Kino adjusted her aim. She opened fire.
“Stop!” the bearded man bellowed. The muscular man lost half his head, which landed on the ground like a crushed tomato. Arms outstretched towards his friend, he crumpled forward with a thud. And he stopped moving.
The tall man noted which way the blood and brains had spilled. “He’s on the right! Not ahead! The alley!”
“Smoke canisters!” the bald man ordered. The others lit their smoke canisters and flung them.
The canisters hit the wall by the alley and landed, spewing thick purple smoke.
A second before the smoke grew any thicker, Kino fired once at the writhing man’s stomach. Then she picked up the four empty cartridges next to her and took off.
Soon, the gusts blew away the purple smoke.
The tall man took aim at the alley. But their target was already gone.
The bald man knelt by the man in the hat.
His legs and stomach were already drenched in blood. The man with the backpack desperately tried to stop his bleeding, to no avail. Steam rose from the blood.
“Sorry…I messed up…”
“Enough. Save your strength,” said the bald man.
“No. It’s over… I can’t…see…”
The man in the hat died with eyes wide open, tears streaming down his face.
The bald man gently closed his friend’s eyes and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a small, round pendant marked with a star and undid the chain, sliding it into his own breast pocket.
Without a word, the bearded man held out the muscular man’s pendant. The bald man took this one as well and gingerly put it into his pocket. The two chains clinked quietly inside.
The two bodies were laid out on the paving stones with cloth covering their faces.
“We’ll give ‘em a proper burial later. Once we’ve killed the target,” said the bald man.
The man with the backpack scanned the area, persuader at the ready. “He’s using a highly accurate and advanced model. An automatic type equipped with a suppressor.”
“If only we had some of those,” the short man said, nodding.
“No use dwelling on what-ifs,” the bald man said mechanically. “We’ll make do with the weapons we have.”
Taking out a map, the bald man opened it up and weighed it down to keep it from getting blown away. The map was growing discolored with age, but perfectly depicted the cylinder-shaped country in detail.
Several streets ran eastward in parallel, and at the end of those streets was a long park. Beyond the park was another residential district almost identical to the others, but it had been crossed out in pen with the words ‘RUINS’.
“You think he’ll try to run?” asked the short man.
“No. If I were him, I’d be taking cover in the area to pick off the rest of us. He probably doesn’t want to leave the motorrad behind, but he can’t take off on it because the engine’ll give away his position,” the bearded man explained.
The man with the backpack asked, “Then you think he’s crossed the park? To the ruins?”
The bald man fell into thought, scanning the map. He eventually shook his head. “Not that far. Probably just ahead of it. We’re on his tail—didn’t give him enough time to escape the park. He’s probably hiding in a building on the edge of the ruins, biding time before getting us all from behind, whether it’s on the street or the park.”
The tall man nodded, still on high alert. “That’s what I’d do in his shoes. If that really is an automatic he’s got, he could kill us all in one go.”
“We’ll split into two teams,” said the bald man, “And check all the balconies from either end of the park. We’ll catch him by surprise.”
“I’m bored,” Hermes mumbled.
The courtyard was deserted, save for the sound of broken window frames and fallen laundry hangers squeaking in the wind.
“This is so boring,” Hermes said, when he heard gunshots in the distance. “Oh. Did they get Kino?”
Another round of gunfire followed.
“Oh. Not yet.”
“They’re better than I expected,” Kino muttered, running down the stairs.
The short man and the man with the backpack opened fire on the third-floor balcony she had been hiding on.
Reaching the first floor, Kino passed the living room and kicked open the front door. Bullets struck where she had been a moment earlier, leaving two holes and a spray of wooden splinters.
“Two on the right… They’ve split up.”
Kino was on the eastern corner, in the house at the end of the row lining the park. Just outside the open door was the park and a road running from north to south.
“I’m done for if they manage a pincer attack. Better push through the side with fewer people…”
Heading to the south side of the house, Kino discovered a dusty frosted-glass window in the bathroom. She gently pushed it open and made her way into the courtyard, passed an arch, and headed for the corner of the east-west thoroughfare. Then she got down, clinging to Flute so she could open fire at a moment’s notice.
Kino looked out in the direction of the park. Across the way was the entrance to another courtyard, and to her immediate left was the road that followed the park, and an intersection.
At the corner of the building across the road, she spotted the muzzle of a rifle. And the face of the short man.
The second she ducked, a bullet came shooting at her. It hit the ground and bounced off.
Kino rose and hefted Flute on her back. Pulling out Cannon, she left the cover of the street corner and pulled the trigger without taking aim.
The bullet disappeared into the park, but the men shrank at the noise.
Immediately, she switched hands and took out a flask from her satchel. It was for medicine, but she had filled it with green gunfluid. A short fuse stuck out of the mouth.
Kino opened fire to light the fuse. The shot drove a hole in the courtyard wall.
Swinging wide, Kino tossed the flask far into the air. It slowly crossed the road and clattered to the ground near the corner of the building.
Immediately, Kino got back and ducked, covering her ears and opening her mouth.
“Grenade!” cried the short man, who had been taking aim from the corner on his knees. “Get down!” he got up and pushed his friend to the ground. Then he ducked as well, pointing his feet at the corner.
The flask exploded.
White smoke spewed endlessly from the explosion, swallowing the intersection.
The three men walking north along the parkside road towards the battle spotted the cloud. A second later, they heard a dull thud.
“Is it him?” asked the bearded man.
The tall man looked into his scope. The white smoke began clearing and he spotted someone moving in the crosshairs. Two men were about to get up from the ground.
“The guys are alive.”
“Then we regroup,” said the bald man. “It’s dangerous outside. We’ll cut through the courtyard and join them. Kill the intruder on sight.”
The men crept into a nearby alley. And one by one, they passed through a courtyard and out of a building.
The tall man watched the south side, and the bearded man the north.
The paving stones were stained black by the blast, and the buildings were crumbling a little more. Almost every window in the area had shattered.
The bald man found their two collapsed friends and checked them for injuries before sitting them up. Then he pulled them over to lean them against the buildings.
“You all right?”
The man with the backpack shook his head. Dust fell from his hair as he coughed. “My ears are ringing! Otherwise I’m fine!”
“I can still fight. I can fight,” said the short man. He was covered in scrapes, and a trickle of blood ran down his cheek. The ends of his pant legs were slightly singed.
“I see.” The bald man held out a water bottle to the man with the backpack.
“Where’d he go…? Is he dead?” asked the short man, wiping the blood off his face.
The bald man shook his head. “No. I can’t say for sure because all this dust covered his track, but he probably used the explosion as a decoy to run south through the courtyard. He must’ve seen the pincer attack coming.”
“Damn it…” the short man groaned. There was a cut in his mouth and blood was running down his lip. The man with the backpack handed him the water bottle.
The short man spat out a mouthful of water and blood.
“I see him,” said the tall man. “He’s trying to escape the park.” He was sitting with his knees in front of him, either elbow on either knee with the scope of his rifle pressed to his eye.
Everyone turned. The bald man peered through his binoculars.
The park was overrun with dry grass and weeds. Further south, they could see someone running. To the naked eye, the figure was the size of a grain of rice, but through the binoculars, it was clear enough to clearly make out the rifle.
“He’s far. Can you get him?” asked the bald man.
Without a word, the tall man wrapped the leather strap around his left shoulder to secure his rifle and steadied the crosshairs over the running target. He aimed a little ahead and higher than the target and pulled the trigger.
The gun roared. The men looked at the target. The target was still running.
The tall man deftly loaded another round and fired. The target was still running.
Then the third shot. A gust of wind kicked up dust around them.
Then the fourth. The target was still running.
The fifth. The target fell forward just before it could escape the park.
“Did you get him?” asked the man with the backpack.
“No. He ducked,” said the bald man, still looking through the binoculars.
The short man asked, “But why?”
“GET DOWN!” cried the bald man. He spotted the target taking aim.
The men hit the ground at once.
The tall man, however, unloaded the last casing and remained seated.
Kino pretended to fall when she heard the fifth shot, and lay on her stomach on a slight, grassy hill in the park.
She aimed Flute and peered into the scope, and saw the men ducking. With the exception of the one who had been firing on her until a moment ago.
Kino took aim at the man. He was far, and there was a strong wind. She moved the crosshairs diagonally above the man.
Then she opened fire. And again.
They heard no gunshots, only the sound of bullets cutting through the air. And the crumbling of paving stones and roof tiles around them.
Four men lay on their stomachs with their hands over their heads. The tall man alone sat with his empty persuader at the ready, glaring at the shooter through his scope.
He stared in complete silence.
Flute’s bolt came to a full stop once the nine-round magazine had been emptied.
The man in the scope remained seated, unmoving.
“Missed… I thought I’d make at least one shot.”
Quickly, Kino got up and ran the short distance out of the park with the still-smoking Flute in her arms.
Soon she was in the thoroughfare.
Before Kino’s eyes was were mounds of collapsed roof tiles.
“After him. Scatter longways and cross the park, and make sure to avoid getting in front of him. There is no high ground in the ruins ahead—make sure you’re on alert,” the bald man ordered.
The others looked up. Their crow’s feet deepened as they shot fiery glares at their target’s direction.
The short man, his face a grizzled mess, tapped on the tall man. He was still sitting frozen.
“Hey…” said the tall man. A droplet of sweat ran down his cheek.
The tall man reached into his satchel and took out five rounds.
“He’s mine…” he muttered, loading the rounds into his rifle one after another. “I’ll get him…”
“Right,” the short man said with a nod, helping his friend up as the latter finished loading.
“I swear, he’s mine,” the tall man seethed.
“Yeah. Let’s go.”
The tall man followed the others from the back.
Little by little, blood began to soak the side of his jacket.
After the explosion had come five gunshots. Then silence.
“Are they still fighting? They’re actually giving Kino some trouble. Or maybe it’s the other way around,” Hermes grumbled. “I’m so bored. Not that I mind being under a roof in this weather. It’s getting cold. What’s Kino going to do if it starts snowing? I don’t want to slip and slide around everywhere…”
“There he is,” the man with the backpack hissed.
The roofs of the houses lining the street had caved in, spilling tiles onto the ground. They lay in mounds littering the street, creating obstacles for any would-be explorer. The men were taking cover at the end of a pile that was the height of a fully-grown adult.
“Hey,” the short man said to the tall man, pointing at a gap in the wall to their left. “I’ll lure him out. I’ll run over to that hole, so take care of him when he pokes his head out. I don’t care if I lose an arm or two this time.” He grinned.
The bald man and the tall man exchanged glances and nodded.
The tall man crept up to the top of the mound of tiles and slowly positioned his persuader—and his head—for a shot. “I’ll get him this time, I swear…”
The short man leapt out of cover, running for the hole in the wall. Tiles crunched beneath his feet. At the same time, the tall man pushed himself up and spotted their enemy, head poking out on the other side.
But their foe was not taking aim at the short man.
By the time the tall man had risen to find their target, the target had already finished taking aim. At him.
The tall man ground his teeth.
Kino opened fire.
The bullet went from her persuader to the top of the mound in the blink of an eye, piercing the tall man’s wide-open left eye and punching out the back of his head.
The short man reached the safety of the hole in the wall, and turned to find his friend falling in a mess of blood.
“Goddammit! The bastard!” he cried. He leaned out of cover and took aim, when the enemy shot the rifle out of his hands. A second shot grazed his right arm, leaving a gash.
The short man leapt back into cover. “There! Behind the car, below you to the left!”
His friends spotted a car over the mound of tiles. It had been abandoned on the street and crushed under a pile of bricks. The bald man gave it a quick peek before returning to cover. “We can get him with a grenade. Distance is eighty.”
The man with the backpack took off the backpack and took out a rifle grenade. The cylinder affixed to the front contained gunpowder, and slender wings were attached to the thinner part at the back.
The man opened his rifle and loaded a special blank with a wooden warhead. Then he secured the grenade to the end of the barrel and raised the gun sight on the side.
“He’s straight ahead,” said the bald man.
The man with the backpack nodded and pulled the pin. Then he propped up the rifle by its stock, took aim with the sight, and pulled the trigger.
There was an explosive noise. The grenade was launched.
Kino reacted instantly. She leapt out from cover and had run about six steps to the right when the explosion hit.
The bearded man looked at the short man across the way and gave him a thumbs-down. The short man shook his head. “To the side! Your left!”
“One more shot. Further left,” the bald man said.
The man with the backpack deftly loaded another blank and the grenade.
He took aim and fired.
Kino was flat against the ground. She rose again, dusting herself off, and took a seat on the mound of tiles. The car had taken the full force of the blast, its windows shattered and body crumpled beyond recognition.
The moment she heard the second shot, Kino took aim. She spotted a dark object flying across the cloudy sky.
Without even looking into the scope, Kino used the metal gun sight and pointed Flute at the object. She pulled the trigger.
There was an explosion in midair. It left behind a cloud of black smoke and scattered shrapnel everywhere.
“What happened?” demanded the man with the backpack.
“He shot it down!” the short man replied, still in cover.
The bearded man was incredulous. “What in the world is he?”
“Damn it,” the short man hissed. His rifle lay on a mound of tiles.
He leaned out slightly to survey the area, and was fired upon. One bullet left a long graze on his cheek and smashed into a brick.
The man rushed back into cover.
Her aim still trained on her foes, Kino reloaded Flute with her left hand. When she gave her head a light shake, tiny pieces of rubble fell from her hat.
“I’ll do it,” said the bearded man.
The others turned. Across the street was the short man, still in cover and wrapping up his injured right arm with his left hand and mouth.
“Give me the rest of the explosives. I can’t let him kill any more of us. I’ll try and persuade him.”
There was a moment of silence before the bald man finally responded, “But why does it have to be you?”
The bearded man grinned. “Because I’m the oldest here. And you’ll respect your elders if you know what’s good for you.”
“…Fine,” the bald man sighed, pulling out a shoulder satchel from the backpack. Inside were four box-shaped explosives.
The man with the backpack pulled out a cigarette-shaped object with a long string dangling from it. A fuse. “You’ll get seven seconds to detonation.”
The bearded man received the fuse and, with a careful hand, reached to stick it in the explosives. But he paused.
“Here.” He took the pendant off his neck and held it out to the bald man. “I’ll come back for it.”
The bearded man placed his pendant on the bald man’s outstretched hand. He squeezed his hand, and the hand of the man with the backpack.
The bearded man stuck the fuse into the explosives and hung the satchel from his neck. He threw it back over his shoulder to conceal it from the target and slipped the strap into his shirt.
Then he roared. “I want to negotiate!”
Hands raised above his head, the bearded man slowly rose from behind the mound of tiles.
The short man paled when he saw his friend rise, but quickly understood what was happening.
The bearded man began walking across the roof tiles, but was not fired upon.
Taking cautious steps, the bearded man slowly passed the hole in the wall when the short man was hiding.
“I want to negotiate!”
The voice was carried on the wind, clear enough for Kino to hear.
She cast a glance at the hole in the wall before taking aim at the man walking with his hands in the air.
“I want to negotiate!”
The bearded man was halfway to Kino.
“You can negotiate from where you are now. Freeze,” said the target, just loud enough for the bearded man to hear.
“I just want to talk! I’ve left my persuaders! I’m coming over now!” he cried, refusing to stop.
“I can hear you just fine. Please stop.”
The bearded man ignored the target.
“Please stop, or I will open fire,” the target said when the man was two-thirds of the way there.
The bearded man could see his target taking aim. A young person in a hat and goggles.
The bearded man grinned. He broke into a run, screaming, grabbing the satchel behind his back and the string hanging out of it.
The first round struck him in the gut. The second pierced his lung.
But the man refused to stop. He charged, pulling the string. His right hand swung and hurled the satchel with all his strength.
The second the satchel left his hand, it was struck by a third shot. The satchel fell limp to the ground, stopped in its tracks.
It landed in front of the bearded man, who had rolled for cover.
“DAMN YOU!” he yelled, getting up with the satchel in his arms. He lunged.
Kino did not fire a fourth shot. She turned.
She ran at full speed, avoiding the crumbling edges of the buildings.
There was an explosion.
The force of the blast rushed down the streets. The ground shook and buildings began to collapse.
As clouds of dust began to rise, the short man leapt out of his hiding place. The wall he had taken cover under soon crumbled.
The dust obscured everything on the street from view.
The impact of the blast even rattled Hermes.
“Oh, it’s an earthquake,” he mumbled. “What do you think, was that a 1.5? We advise all viewers in coastal areas to be on the lookout for tsunamis. We will bring you more information as soon as it becomes available…” he joked to himself, and sighed. “I’m so bored.”
A gust of wind blew in, clearing their view.
“Did he get him?” the bald man wondered, looking up at the now-even taller mounds of tiles. A building came half-crumbling.
He searched for his friends. The man with the backpack was on his left, and the short man was lying on his stomach on a mound of tiles ahead. Both rose, shaking debris off themselves. He heard coughing.
The bald man spotted something as he helped his friends up.
“Did he get him?” asked the man with the backpack.
“Dunno yet,” the bald man replied, holding out his discovery for the others to see. A right boot, containing a leg from the calf down.
They recognized the boot.
“No sign of him.”
The short man was in the lead, holding his rifle at waist-level as he crossed the mounds of tiles. Behind him was the bald man, whose rifle and scope were trained ahead.
“From a blast that big, there might not be anything left of him,” the man with the backpack suggested. His rifle was already equipped with another grenade.
“You never know.” “Yeah.”
The men passed the epicenter of the explosion. Organs were splattered on the wall next to it. They pressed forward.
“Here! I see blood!” cried the short man. The bald man followed, never once letting his guard down.
There was a small pool of blood. Thumb-sized droplets led away from them, further down the street.
“Good. He’s lost a lot of blood,” said the short man.
“Depends on where he’s hurt. But we know for sure that he didn’t get out of this one unscathed,” the bald man said mechanically. “Let’s go.”
The blood trail led eastward.
Soon, the men were out of the half-collapsing neighborhood. Before their eyes were low, fallen metal fences. Beyond that, a dirt field flanked by a large concrete structure. It was a three-story building with many windows.
“He’s gone into the school,” said the short man.
The three men were taking cover behind two cars left abandoned on the road by the fence. The blood trail led past the fence and cut directly across the school grounds.
“You think he’s waiting for us in there?” wondered the man with the backpack.
“Will a grenade reach him from here? How many shots have you got left?” the bald man asked from near the ground, surveying the school with his binoculars.
“Five. Distance-wise, it’s a little risky. I’ll have to aim from near the ground.”
“We’ll accept his invitation. I’ll distract him, so stay back here even if he gets me. Fire off four shots into whichever classroom he’s hiding in. Got that?”
“Yeah.” “Yeah,” the two men said, nodding.
“I’m sorry,” Kino said. Her hands were covered in blood.
It was still overcast outside.
With his rifle at the ready, the bald man took one step after another across the grounds. There was nothing he could use for cover.
From either sides of the cars on the road, the remaining men stared at their sights with fingers hooked on their triggers. Taking deep breaths, they glared up at the half-shattered windows.
Four shots from the building, followed by the sound of whizzing bullets.
The bald man immediately ducked. “Second floor! Third class from the right!”
The short man and the man with the backpack quickly took aim. They spotted the barrel of a persuader sticking out of a broken window. The source of the gunshot. The bullets flew clear over the cars and disappeared into the city.
Two grenades were launched in unison.
They drew a gentle arc in the air, smashing through windows and flying into the classroom. Then they exploded.
Every window in the room shattered, sending shards of glass spraying across the balcony.
The men fired off the second round of grenades.
Both grenades flew into the naked window frames, just as planned.
The bald man peered into his binoculars.
Nothing was moving inside the destroyed classroom. There was no return fire. The wind sounded much louder in the sudden silence.
“Did we get him?”
The half-dried trail of blood cut across the grounds, went up the stairs on the right-hand side of the school, and led into the second floor hallway.
The short man peered into the long, dark hall. The blood trail led into the third classroom. The door was squeaking on its last hinge.
The men held their persuaders at the ready and stalked down the hall. When they reached the classroom, one person took aim and another kicked down the door.
Inside they found the ruined classroom, gutted by shrapnel from floor to ceiling. Several desks were flipped on their sides and tops, their metal legs bent.
“He’s not here,” the short man said, scanning the room, and slowly stepped inside. There was no one there. Not even a body.
The bald man and the man with the backpack followed him inside, watching their rear.
“Look, his rifle. We could use it,” the short man said, prodding with his foot at a persuader pinned under a desk. Some shrapnel had pierced the stock, but the frame and the scope were protected from the impact by the desk.
The short man leaned down to grab it.
“Stop. We have to confirm he’s dead,” said the bald man.
The short man rose immediately, failing to notice the thin wire tied to Flute’s trigger.
The man with the backpack spotted more blood under one of the desks. The trail led through the other set of classroom doors leading back into the hallway. This time, the trail was a smear against the floor.
“He’s got guts, I’ll give him that,” the short man said with a grin. He led the way as the group went back into the hallway. They only saw the left half of their target’s footprints. Where the right footprints should have been, they only saw smears of blood.
The blood led them to the classroom next door. The door showed signs of having been opened and closed once. And no signs of anyone having left.
The short man squatted by the door and slowly turned the knob, his friends covering him with their rifles.
The door squeaked open with ease.
Rifle at the ready, the short man followed the blood trail and looked around the classroom. The smear continued across the floor and stopped at a desk standing alone in the middle of the room.
On the desk was a familiar face.
A bearded one. Its eyes were shut as if in peaceful sleep. Behind the face was the head, and underneath was its neck and a bloodied desk.
There was nothing else in the classroom.
Moaning in anguish, the short man staggered into the room with his eyes wide open. The others froze.
The head rested on the piece of cloth that had been wrapped around it until not too long ago. The cloth was dyed a deep red.
“It wasn’t his own blood,” said the man with the backpack.
“God…dammit… The bastard…” the short man gasped, approaching the desk. “This is inhuman…insulting the dead… Damn you…damn you…”
The rifle fell out of his hands. Weeping, the short man reached for his friend’s head.
“He’s a monster… I swear…”
His hands cupped his friend’s face.
“We’ll avenge you…I swear, we are going to make him pay…”
And he picked up the head.
“STOP!” cried the bald man.
The wire tied to the hair on the severed head was stretched taut.
Tied to the end of the wire was a waterproof match, stuck between two stones tied together. Along with a fuse.
A small green bottle hidden in the bearded man’s hair came loose, falling onto the cloth. A burning fuse was stuck in the mouth of the bottle. The short man could do nothing but stare.
There was an explosion.
A deafening boom shook the building and shattered every window in the class.
White smoke poured out onto the balcony.
Kino watched from next to the north staircase as the smoke cleared. She made her way towards the classroom.
With Cannon in her right hand, red with a stranger’s blood, she stepped through the crumpled doorway and entered the ruined classroom.
One of the men was missing his upper body, which was splattered all over the walls.
Another person was moaning by the wall, his face stuffed with shards of glass. Hands trembling, he tried to pull the pin out of his grenade.
The bald man lying by the door moved. His right hand was trying to draw a hand persuader out of his holster.
Kino stood before the man with the grenade and shot him in the chest. He recoiled once, and stopped moving.
The bald man held the persuader in his bloodied right hand and took aim.
“You can’t,” Kino said, as the man tried to fire. He pulled anyway.
The persuader was silent. It fell out of his hand. The man found himself missing an index and a middle finger.
Kino came up to him.
“To think you were just a child…” he said, looking up.
“Tell me,” Kino said, “Why did you attack me?”
The man breathed a long, heavy sigh. “We were just trying to protect our country…”
“Your country?” Kino repeated.
The man reached into his shirt, and with his thumb, pulled out the pendants inside by the chains. The small, round pendants were marked with stars.
Holding the pendants before his eyes, the man stared at them. “This is our country… And that is why we are fighting…” he mumbled. “But…we failed. We came home failures, failing to become heroes. When we returned, everyone was gone… We couldn’t be heroes out there, so we at least wanted to become heroes who protected our home… But now it’s over. We die failures…”
Kino did not interrupt.
“Now kill me,” said the man. “Pull the trigger…and let me join the others.”
“No need. You’re going to die soon anyway,” Kino replied.
The man missing his left hand and the flesh over his stomach replied from a pool of his own blood,
“Oh. I see.”
He man grinned.
The bald man died with a smile.
Kino gently shut the man’s eyes.
“‘Though they never returned, our heroes live on forever in our hearts’,” she recited. Then she closed her own eyes.
“Welcome back, Kino. You’re covered in blood—not hurt anywhere?”
“Did you get them all?”
“That’s a relief.”
“Yeah. No one here’s going to fire at us without warning now.”
“Kino, check your left pocket.”
“A hole. Are you sure they didn’t get you?”
“…I had no idea. When did they do this? Was it at the park?”
“Anyway, did you get me anything?”
“Huh? This is ammunition.”
“Yeah. From the rifles they were using. They’re a perfect match for Flute. In fact, I found more bullets than I used today.”
“Aww, you didn’t get anything for me?”
“I guess I have a story for you.”
“Yeah? How does it go?”
* * *
Chapter 5: The Heroes’ Country
The sun was not even halfway to its peak when the traveler arrived at the gates. The sky was clear, but there was a chill in the air.
The traveler was on a motorrad with compartments hanging over either side of the rear wheel, and a large suitcase secured to the luggage rack.
The rider was in a long brown coat, its edges wrapped around her thighs. She wore a hat with ear flaps and a bill, and a pair of goggles over her eyes. There was a bandanna around her face to protect it from the wind.
The traveler went up to the guardhouse outside the gates.
“Good morning. My name is Kino, and this is my partner Hermes. We’d like to request a three-day stay.”
The guard on duty courteously asked several questions before letting in the traveler and her motorrad.
When the guard asked if Kino was in possession of any persuaders, she nodded. “Are they banned in this country, by any chance?”
“Not at all. The very opposite,” the guard replied with a smile.
Kino and Hermes passed through the gates and into the white walls.
The land was flat and sprawling; plenty of room for wide streets and large, one-story buildings. Many of the buildings seemed to have been built recently.
As Kino studied the map she received at the guardhouse, a kindly old man drove up in a small truck. He was a guide from the country.
The guide gave Kino and Hermes a hearty welcome, and took them by truck to a hotel. The truck drove down the wide, deserted streets to the city center.
At the hotel, the guide gave Kino and Hermes a lesson on the country’s history.
The country had originally been two smaller nations that merged seventeen years earlier. One of the nations was a kingdom with a large territory but a small population, and the other was a republic with a small territory and a large population. The land they were in now was part of the old kingdom, and the old republic was far across the mountain range.
The merger happened thus: the king of the kingdom lost his mind one day, causing his people great suffering. The kingdom’s citizens, unable to bear any more of his tyranny, called on the republic across the mountain range for help. The tiny, crowded republic accepted the request. They helped put the mad king away in a hospital, after which the two nations were peacefully merged into one. The new country was a democracy where all citizens enjoyed the same rights and freedoms.
In this country, all citizens were mandated to serve in the military for a time. Everyone between the ages of eighteen and fifty were officially registered as soldiers, and were called upon regularly for training. Every household possessed weapons, and everyone would be conscripted upon to fight if a war broke out. That was why marksmanship was one of the country’s favorite pastimes.
“I see,” Kino said, recalling what she had heard at the guardhouse.
That afternoon, Kino and Hermes explored the area. Then she took him in for maintenance and stocked up on necessities at the store.
Near the wall, they spotted a sign that read, ‘NATIONAL SHOOTING RANGE’. The sign was attached to a massive outdoor facility. The manager approached her and explained that the shooting range was closed for the day for maintenance.
Kino introduced herself and asked if she could visit for some practice. The manager replied, eyes sparkling, “Then please drop by tomorrow. We can offer you the entire range, free of charge. And please do give us some persuader lessons as well.”
The next day, Kino rose at dawn.
She started off the day with her usual exercises and reached for her persuaders for training, but paused.
Then she decided to train after all.
After breakfast, Kino smacked Hermes awake and headed for the shooting range.
Though it was still early, the shooting range was packed with everyone from ordinary citizens to people in military uniforms. The manager from the previous day welcomed Kino and introduced her to the crowd. He explained that Kino traveled with a pair of persuaders, and that she was capable of defending herself on the road. Everyone was very impressed, and asked for her guidance.
“It’d be really funny if you turned out to be really bad with persuaders, Kino,” Hermes said.
The shooting range was equipped with all sorts of facilities for all sorts of situations, from short to long distances. Targets could move automatically, and far-off targets were shown on a live feed so shooters could quickly tell how well they had done.
One facility was a mockup of a building interior, from which popped up mannequins dressed up like villains, women carrying babies, or children holding knives.
As the people watched, Kino practiced shooting live ammunition with Cannon and Woodsman.
Each time she did something, Kino was showered with thunderous applause. “All this attention is making it hard to focus,” she mumbled.
“Remember what Master always used to say, Kino,” Hermes advised, “Maintain discipline at all times.”
“You don’t have a rifle, Kino?” the manager asked over lunch at the cafeteria. “Wouldn’t you feel safer with a longer-range persuader?”
Kino agreed, but explained that traveling on Hermes made it difficult to carry around a large weapon.
The manager replied with a smile, “We have the perfect model for you.”
After lunch, the manager brought over a case. “Here you are. Thank you for waiting,” he said, opening it up to reveal a rifle.
The model he brought her could be dismantled, and was in two pieces in the case. The back half consisted of a wooden stock and a scope, and the front was a metallic black frame with a long cylinder.
“This is an automatic model with a built-in suppressor, which can be dismantled for better portability. It’s brand-new—we just began supplying it to the military recently. It boasts improved accuracy and a sturdier build.”
The manager offered to let Kino hold the rifle. She looked at the manual and put together the parts according to the diagrams.
“What do you think? Isn’t it lovely?”
Kino replied that the rifle was comfortable to hold, and that it looked like it would be easy to wield as well.
“Would you like to take it for a test run? Please give us your feedback.”
Kino took the rifle to the range. She placed it on a cushion on a table and took aim at a distant target through the scope.
Each time a bullet pierced the black circle at the center of the target, the crowds behind her went wild.
“Still distracting?” Hermes asked.
“I’m used to it now,” Kino replied, and pulled the trigger. There was another roar of approval.
Once Kino had practiced to her heart’s content, she was bombarded with questions. One person asked her whom she had trained under.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t answer that question,” Kino replied.
Another person asked her how advanced her training facility was.
“Actually, I trained in the middle of the woods,” Kino replied.
Someone else asked for Kino to at least reveal how she came to be so skilled.
“…All I can say is that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” Kino replied.
Afternoon was halfway over, and Kino and the manager were sitting around a cafeteria table eating dessert.
“You were amazing, Kino. Everyone was very impressed—and motivated to try even harder now.”
“Yeah, Kino. It’s nice to see you get some recognition for once,” said Hermes.
“The more our citizens improve their marksmanship skills, the more our defense capabilities will be strengthened. And that in turn will help us maintain peace and security in the area.”
“Does this country have any enemies?” asked Kino.
The manager smiled sheepishly. “Actually, this country—in fact, both the countries that formed this one—have never been in war. There are no potential enemies around us. We say that every able-bodied citizen is a soldier, but no one has any marksmanship experience aside from shooting paper targets and mannequins. We take pride in our regular training exercises and the abilities of individual men and women, but we have no idea how combat-capable we really are.”
“It’s wonderful that you’re living in peace,” said Kino. “And if the worst should happen, your training will pay off. I’m sure everyone will do better than they thought they could.”
“Thank you very much, Kino. It’s very encouraging to hear that. We’ll redouble our efforts and continue our training.”
“I’m impressed. Always expect the unexperted,” said Hermes.
“Pardon me?” the manager asked, befuddled.
“Hermes, are you doing that on purpose?”
That evening, the manager told Kino to keep the rifle if she liked it and found it portable enough to carry. He added that he hoped their excellent persuader could help her in her travels.
Kino thought for a moment and expressed her gratitude, accepting the rifle. She asked for its name.
“We don’t really have one. Just a designation—‘National Disassembly Rifle Type-52’.”
“That’s a mouthful.”
“I’ll have to think of a name later,” said Kino.
On the third day, Kino spent the morning touring the area on Hermes.
In the city center was the palace from the old kingdom, the area around which had been converted into a public park.
Kino asked Hermes what he thought of the palace. He replied snidely, “It’s not bad. But it’s all the same, Kino. Kings pouring all their money into big palaces until the people get angry and overthrow him. The palace then gets turned into a park because people want to keep the pretty building. I’ve never seen a king get praise while he was still on the throne.”
In a corner of the park was a large black stone cut like a wall.
Kino approached the stone. People were engraved into it—smiling young men standing in a line.
“Pardon me, is this a monument to something?” Kino asked a passing man in his fifties.
The man nodded firmly. “Yes. It’s a memorial to a group of brave young heroes.”
“Yes. All of us from the republic remember them. This was thirty years ago, years before the two countries merged. The republic was teeming with people and packed to bursting. But we simply couldn’t expand our borders, so the government sent out scouting teams to search for a new place to settle. Twelve teams in all, sent out in every direction.”
“I see. What happened to them?”
“The government recruited young men, who were put in teams of seven. Each team would come back from their expedition in six months, whether they succeeded or not. Eleven returned.”
“What about the last team?”
“Over a decade passed, but they never came back. This team was dispatched to the harshest area—the mountains. They must have been stranded somewhere. The government built this monument in their memory. This is what the men looked like when they set off. Afterwards, the republic merged with the kingdom, and we all moved to this land. We left most of the buildings as they were, but dragged this monument with us. We couldn’t just leave it there to be forgotten. Our heroes are even in our school textbooks now.”
Kino turned her gaze to the monument again. The young men wore bright, brave smiles. They were all armed with now-outdated rifles and wearing identical pendants. Small, round pendants marked with stars.
The man said, “Why not drop by the old republic on your way, Traveler? Cross two large mountains to the west and you’ll find it in a hollow. We’ve left it all as it was, ramparts and buildings and all. We’re never going back, of course—we love our new home—but you might enjoy the place. have a look at the old buildings and houses we used to live in. The roads, I still remember, all lined with identical buildings, and the courtyards bustling with people. I’ll never forget playing in those streets as a young boy. Ah, memories.”
“That sounds interesting. I might drop by if I can,” Kino said, and thanked the man. Once he departed, she glanced at the words engraved on the monument.
Written below the smiling men were the words,
‘Though they never returned, our heroes live on forever in our hearts.’