* * *
Chapter 1: Her Journey
Nestled in a deep green wood, near a clear lake reflecting the bright blue sky, was a large country. It was filled with tall buildings and crisscrossed by a web of roads and alleys.
There was a set of gates at the western wall, with a guardhouse used for immigrations procedures.
A motorrad stood in the plaza, a short distance from the guardhouse. Its rear seat was laden with travel gear.
The rider was wearing a black jackets, a belt, and a holstered hand persuader on her thigh. She was in her mid-teens with short black hair, large eyes, and fair features. Over her head she wore a hat and a pair of goggles.
The plaza was empty, save for a few birds flying around in search of food. The sun hung across the top of the eastern wall, casting the rider’s shadow through the gate.
“How much longer, Kino?”
“You just asked me a little while ago, Hermes,” replied the rider.
Then there was a noise, and a cleaning truck broke the silence of the streets. It sent birds flying off as it hosed down the thoroughfare by the plaza and disappeared.
Kino’s shadow grew a little shorter.
“Not yet?” Hermes asked again.
“Not yet,” Kino replied. That was when the guardhouse door opened.
“Is it our turn yet?” Hermes asked. A man stepped outside.
He was in his mid-thirties, dressed for outdoor activities and wearing a vest with many pockets that could store a variety of things at once. Slung behind his back was a rifle-type persuader. It was military-grade with a plastic frame, the scope equipped with built-in night vision and a laser sight.
When the man spotted Kino and Hermes, he stepped forward and greeted them. Kino got off Hermes and greeted him back.
“Are you in line? I’m sorry, but there’s one more person inside. It’s going to take a while—the paperwork is nothing to sneeze at,” said the man.
Hermes asked, “Are you from here? Going on a journey?”
“Well, yes,” the man replied, downcast.
“So where’s your goodbye party?” Hermes asked without an ounce of tact. “Your family and friends aren’t the nicest people, are they?”
“You don’t pull any punches, do you?” the man sighed, and looked back at the guardhouse. The door was still closed.
“I suppose you must have your reasons,” Kino said.
The man nodded. “Yeah. It’s supposed to be a secret, but I guess there’s no harm in telling outlanders. I don’t think I’d mind too much if someone out there knew. …We have a long wait ahead of us, so would you mind listening to my story? Just to pass the time? I’ll tell you why I’m leaving the country,” he said, looking Kino in the eye.
Kino pushed her hat up slightly. “Please do.”
The man’s expression darkened, but he soon smiled. “See, it’s because I’m going to repent. For the rest of my life.”
“Repent?” “For what?” asked Kino and Hermes.
Something like a grin and a grimace rose to the man’s lips. “I know, I know. It sounds weird. But I need to do this… I have to do this…”
Several seconds passed in silence. “Is that all?” Hermes piped up.
“N-no, not yet. I was just trying to figure out where to begin. All right, so the person in the guardhouse back there right now is a woman. We’re going to leave together.”
“I don’t know if you could call her that. But she’s the one who suggested we should go. She wants me to protect her on the road if things get dangerous. And that’s because…” the man paused. “…Because I killed her boyfriend.”
“It was seven years ago. We were total strangers then. I made a terrible mistake—drank and drive even though I knew it was illegal. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t tell what was going on around me, and I sped up so much that I missed my turn at the intersection. That’s when it happened…”
“I…drove into a house. But that wasn’t all. A pedestrian got pinned between my car and the house…and I ended up killing that innocent man.” He looked up at the blinding sun with a quiet sigh. “I was arrested and tried. His girlfriend was there, cursing me. Calling me a murderer and demanding that I bring back her boyfriend. And it’s understandable. I deserved it all. That was how we first met.”
The man’s shoulders sagged.
“This is kind of a healthy story for passing the time,” said Hermes.
“You mean, ‘heavy’?”
“Yeah, that,” Hermes replied, and went quiet.
Kino said, “And then what happened?”
“I was sentenced to ten years in prison and went to a facility for traffic offenders. I lost my job, my life, everything. But I was single and didn’t have parents anymore, so not a lot of people cared.”
“Those numbers don’t match up. Did you break out?” Hermes asked, curious.
The man chuckled and shook his head. “That’s not the end of the story. After I went to prison, I regretted what I did. From the bottom of my heart. So I wrote to her. I apologized desperately. I told her that I would do whatever it took to repent, that I would devote my life to paying her back.”
“She didn’t reply. I wrote to her once a month on the dot. I wanted her to know that I was sincerely regretting my actions. I even sent her the meager pay I got at the prison.”
The man looked back again. The guardhouse door was still closed, now lit by the sun.
“Six years passed, and I was completely used to prison life. I forgot what it was like to be free, living like everyone else. That was when she came to visit me. I was floored. It was the biggest shock of my life. I saw her across the window, and the huge bundles of open letters she brought…and I broke down crying, apologizing. Just knowing that she read my letters made me happy. But guess what? Things got even better. She told me to raise my head.”
“And she asked you to leave the country with her,” Kino said.
“Yeah. She wanted to leave. Said she had too many painful memories of this place… That she wanted to go settle somewhere else. And she asked me to be her bodyguard on the way. As it turns out, prisoners with less than five years of their sentence left are allowed to leave the country, on the condition that they never return. It’s a loophole from the days when exile was commonplace. I was so surprised that I asked her, ‘Don’t you hate me?’”
“And?” “And what did she say?”
“She said, ‘Yes. I still despise you. But you promised me in your letters that you’d devote your life to paying me back. So I’m asking you.’”
“Then what happened?”
“I thought it over. Thought harder than I ever did in my entire life. I mean, I just had to spend four more years in there and I’d be a free man. And I’d never considered leaving my home forever. I was born and raised here. I wanted to live and die here, and be buried alongside my parents. I wanted to get released, work hard, and start a new life. But…”
“It occurred to me that maybe she was right. Maybe that was a way of repenting, of paying for my crimes. And it would make her happy, too. I considered it for a year and decided to accept. I’ll be exiled for life and I have no idea how long I’ll have to be her bodyguard, but I’m going to do it. I told her in person when she came to visit. She just smiled and said, ‘Thank you,’ and it all felt so…I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.”
His hands shot up to his eyes, covering them. The man excused himself and turned his back to Kino.
“I guess this’ll be the last time I cry in my homeland,” he said quietly.
The guardhouse door remained closed. Some time later, the man looked up at the sky again.
Then he turned.
“She hasn’t forgiven me yet,” he said, “So I’m going to devote the rest of my life to paying for my crimes. I don’t know how long she’ll be on the road. It’ll be a long trip. It’s her journey, not mine. But it’ll be a symbolic journey for me. This is where it all starts.”
“I understand,” Kino said, as the man teared up again.
“That was a fun story. Everyone’s got something different to share,” said Hermes.
With a quiet laugh, the man said to Kino, “Thanks for listening. Could I ask you a question? From a junior traveler to a veteran?”
“What is it?”
“What’s the most important thing to keep in mind on the road?”
“That’s easy. It’s the same as when you’re living at home,” Kino replied immediately.
“And what is that?”
“Stay alive. Don’t get killed. In other words, do whatever it takes to protect yourself. I could even say it means kill or be killed.”
The guardhouse door opened.
A woman stepped outside. She was about the same age as the man and dressed like him, armed with a hand persuader. The man introduced Kino and Hermes to her, and she smiled.
When Kino explained that they would be traveling in the same direction, the woman said sadly, “If only we were traveling by car, we could have gone together… But I’m not worried. I have a trusty bodyguard who’ll keep me safe.”
The man still looked downcast, but the woman gave him a smile.
“Kino,” she said, “if you catch up to us after you finish exit procedures, you should join us for lunch. We’ll probably stop at the lakeshore for a break.”
Kino nodded. “Thank you.”
The woman said goodbye to Kino and Hermes, mentioning that their carriage was loaded and waiting outside. “Let’s go,” she said to the man. He nodded.
They left through the gates.
“Never pass up anything free. Let’s catch up to them before noon,” Kino said, pushing Hermes to the guardhouse.
“You’re such a cheapskate.”
“I…I guess that’s true.”
They made it out of the country before noon.
Cutting through the forest was a dirt-paved road wide enough to drive along. Kino and Hermes raced down the path to the lakeshore.
The trees lining the road seemed to rush by, offering quick glimpses of the glimmering lake. The sun sat high in the air, casting beams of light between the foliage.
“It’s just around that corner,” Hermes warned. Kino loosened her grip.
It was hard to see past the curve. Kino made the turn and found the lake on the left. Two horses were tethered there, next to the resting man and woman.
Kino slowed as she approached. The man with the rifle spotted her and waved.
Stopping a short distance from the pair, Kino propped up Hermes on his stand. She took off her goggles and let them hang from her neck.
“Hello. I’ve caught up for lunch.”
The man put down his cup and stood. “That was fast. Horses don’t hold a candle to motorrads. We were just starting on tea.” His back turned to the woman, he took several steps towards Kino.
The woman drew her hand persuader and slowly rose. She gripped it with both hands and pointed it at the man’s back.
A casing popped into the air. The bullet drove a hole into the man’s shoulder. Kino leapt back on reflex.
The man screamed, back arching.
A second shot, this time in his right thigh.
The third shot, in his left thigh.
The man lost his balance and crumpled on top of the rifle on his back.
The woman rushed over and put her heel down on the rifle. Then she fired twice, hitting the man once in each shoulder.
Each time, the man screamed in agony.
The woman pulled the rifle from under him and placed it behind her on the ground.
The dumbfounded man lay on the ground, covered in wounds and spilling blood, and looked up at the woman.
“Ah… Why… Who…?”
The woman replied indifferently, “It was me, obviously. Does it hurt?”
The man nodded feebly.
The woman nodded and turned to Kino. “Are you going to shoot me to save him?”
Kino shook her head, her right hand partway to Cannon.
The woman looked back at the man.
Cold sweat dotted his face. He was in pain and confusion.
“Why did I shoot you?”
The man nodded, eyes wide.
“Why else? Because I wanted to kill you.”
“Because I can’t forgive you for taking away the man I loved. I will never forgive you.”
The man was silent.
“That’s not all. Those letters you sent me every month like clockwork all said the same thing. Always apologizing. Crammed to the corners with ‘please forgive me’ and ‘I’ll devote the rest of my life to paying for my crimes’. But you know what they looked like to me? Self-centered ramblings. Maybe some people might accept that. They might accept that you were suffering in prison and that you were the victim you made yourself out to be. And I have no intention of saying that that’s wrong. But I’m different. The pain of losing my boyfriend at your hands got worse and worse over the years. It built up each time you sent me another letter. With each letter, I was reminded that the man who killed him was still alive and well. It hurt. So I decided to take revenge.”
The man lay prone on the ground. He was growing pale.
“Look,” the woman said, unfazed, “This is what I think. Maybe you assumed that if you told the bereaved how sorry you were, you could tell yourself you were doing a good thing and now deserved forgiveness. But that’s called self-satisfaction. Trying to find comfort for yourself. And what were you doing while I wallowed in despair? You lived in a safe facility, with a nice, orderly routine set out for you. You didn’t have to worry about hunger or shelter in there. Worst of all, after ten years of that life, you would be free. You could go back to life without a care in the world. Just the thought of my boyfriend’s murderer walking free on the streets, smiling with a girlfriend of his own…it made my blood boil. I couldn’t let that happen.”
She shot him in the ear. His torn earlobe started bleeding, but it was just a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of his wounds.
“Don’t interrupt me. …So I decided to go through with it. I would take you outside the country, where the laws don’t matter, and kill you with my own two hands. I made all the preparations. I practiced hiding my emotions so I could stay calm in front of you. So I could move without hesitating for even a second. I practiced smiling. And I worked my hands to the bone, saving money for this journey. And I even bought a persuader. An awful weapon I thought I’d never have anything to do with. I bought it with the money you sent me. Then I practiced marksmanship so I could kill you. I researched ammunition to find out what type would make you suffer most. What do you think? Did my research pay off? Are you listening to me?”
She looked down at his face.
He was lying on the ground, unmoving. Tears streamed from his wide eyes down his temples.
“Please…” he whispered, “Please, no…not like this…I don’t want to die…not here…I want to go home…I don’t want to die…”
“You’re not the only one who thought that,” the woman said.
She armed the safety on her persuader and holstered it. Then she turned and picked up the rifle. With a practiced hand, she disarmed the safety and walked around to the man’s feet as he lay spread-eagle on the lakeshore.
Holding the rifle at waist-level, the woman pressed the button on the laser sight next to the scope. A red light appeared on the man’s chin.
“Please…forgive me…” the man begged, his white lips moving weakly.
With a look of pure, unadulterated satisfaction, the woman nodded again and again and smiled.
“All right. You know, all this time, I’d wanted to forgive you. Do you remember what you said in your letters? That you’d devote your life to paying me back. I’m just claiming what you offered. I’m going to take your life. The sooner the better, don’t you agree?”
She pulled the trigger.
Again and again.
Each time, the recoil pushed her back and forced her heels into the ground. But she resisted and kept shooting on and on.
Inside the deep green wood, next to a clear lake reflecting the bright blue sky, two people remained standing.
Two horses were tethered nearby, and a motorrad was propped up on its stand.
A headless man lay on the ground.
The woman slowly sank and laid down the empty rifle.
She looked like a heavy burden had been lifted from her shoulders. She was smiling, free as the birds in the clear sky.
“Ah…” she sighed. “I think I can finally forgive you. Let me make it official. I forgive you. It’s what you wanted, isn’t it? You’ve been asking for it for years. So now I’m making your wish come true. I forgive you. I forgive you for everything.”
A fresh grave was dug next to the lakeshore. A rifle stuck out of it like a headstone.
The woman knelt there and clasped her hands in prayer.
Soon, she rose and turned to Kino.
“Kino, you could have shot me if you wanted. So why didn’t you?”
“Because I’m no god. That’s all.”
“Yeah. Kino is just Kino.”
“Really? All right. Thank you for helping me with the grave.”
“Not at all.”
All the gear had been unloaded from the man’s horse. The woman went to it and whispered, “You’re free now. You can go live in the woods, or go back to the gates and serve again.”
She patted it on the back, and it stepped forward in surprise. But the horse soon took one last look and disappeared into the forest.
“What will you do now?” Kino asked.
“My journey is over,” the woman replied, “I’m going back home to live out my days with the memories of the dead.”
“I see. Take care.”
“Thank you. And I’m sorry for not treating you to lunch.”
“It’s all right.”
The woman collected what they couldn’t bury of the man’s belongings, and loaded them onto her own horse. She climbed on and waved, smiling.
The horse trotted off, turning the corner into the woods and out of sight.
“Phew…” Kino sighed.
“You were right, Kino. I’m surprised. And impressed, too,” said Hermes.
“Yeah. Never pass up anything free.”
“You’re such a cheapskate.”
“I…I guess that’s true.”
There was a fresh grave on the now-deserted lakeshore.
A rifle stuck out of it like a headstone.
It was military-grade with a plastic frame, but missing a scope.
* * *
Chapter 2: Her Journey
-Love and Bullets-
Pillars of stone stood littered like buildings on the sand.
Hundreds of stone pillars defied the elements as they overlooked the flatlands in an otherworldly forest of rock.
The sand was dotted with clumps of slender grass. Hot, dry gusts sometimes swept between the pillars. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
Next to one of the pillars, inside its short shadow, sat three people.
One was a young person in a white shirt and a black vest, armed with a thigh-holstered hand persuader. To the back was a motorrad fully laden with travel gear, propped up on its center stand.
The second and third people were a man and a woman, both in their late twenties and dressed light. The woman had a slim face with her hair pulled into a ponytail. The man, in contrast, was large and well-built. Behind them were two horses laden with travel gear.
“So what is it that you wanted to tell me so desperately?” asked the young person.
“You see, Kino, I wanted to plead with you to forsake violence,” said the woman.
Kino seemed mildly surprised.
The woman continued in a heartfelt voice, “We have to combat violence not with more violence, but love. Love that comes from kindness and honesty. It’s the only real solution to a problem humans have struggled with for all of history. I hope you’ll understand, Kino, and live out this ideology as you travel. It won’t be hard, I promise you. Love, you see, solves all problems.”
The man sat behind her with a silent smile.
“I know this sounds very pushy of me, but I honestly think it’s not impossible to convince the entire world to share the same idea. I mean, think about how we consider water. Everyone agrees it’s necessary. Everyone gets thirsty and needs water to live. It’s the same thing. I think we can all agree that people shouldn’t fight one another, and that we all have to solve these problems with love,” the woman said, excited, “Love is the answer. Selfless love. It’s the most important element in the world. A lofty concept that exists in all of our hearts. And we can nurture this love to eliminate all conflict!” she declared, not even bothering to wipe the sweat off her brow, “Now you understand, don’t you? Why we shouldn’t arm ourselves? Once you realize that there is no need for violence, you lose all need for weapons. And by doing so, we’ll be making the world a better place. All this with one simple ideology. Just think about it! If we can all face the same direction and walk together, we can lay down our conflicts and move forward with nothing but love! It’s so important to create that kind of community!”
Kino listened quietly as the woman pontificated. At times she didn’t make sense and her grammar occasionally degenerated, but Kino kept up eye contact and nodded slightly.
“In other words, we can live without fighting! I am proof! I am unarmed. I’ve met so many people on my travels, but I’ve never been in danger. My partner here is armed, but he’s only ever used his persuaders for hunting. Isn’t it amazing? It’s because I approach people with love that they lose their will to fight. They all understood me. See? People can understand one another! So that’s why—”
The woman continued to describe her worldview and opinions. She went on for a very long time.
“And that’s all I have to say!”
The woman finally finished, drenched in sweat. She heaved a sigh and received a cold cup of tea from the man. “Now please tell me what you think,” she said to Kino.
Kino looked her in the eye. “I think you’re amazing. I can tell how genuine your arguments are. Until now, I’ve been shooting people without mercy to protect myself, but maybe none of that was necessary after all.”
“Right? Right?” the woman nodded.
“I’ve decided to follow your ways. I will live out this ideology of love—I’ll sell my weapons at the next country I visit and live without harming anyone else.”
“I’m so glad you understand!” the woman smiled and took Kino’s hands in hers. “It’s such a blessing to have met you, Kino! If you happen to meet anyone on your journey who reminds you of the person you once were, I want you to tell them the truth! Open their eyes to love and peace! We’re going to change the world, one person at a time, spreading this message to every corner of the earth! And one day, love will resolve every conflict! Just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes! Thank you so much for giving me your time!”
“If you’ll excuse us, then. Safe travels,” Kino said, getting the motorrad ready to leave.
“Thank you. All the best on your journey. Let’s meet again someday,” the woman replied, waving.
Kino said goodbye to the pair and pushed the motorrad out of the cluster of pillars.
“Let’s go, Hermes. We wasted too much time back there,” Kino whispered.
“Yeah,” Hermes replied.
“I’m just going to go tell them which way to go,” the man said, rising from his seat and going after Kino.
Holstered on either side of his belt for simultaneous fire were .45 caliber automatic hand persuaders with long custom magazines. The barrels were affixed with screw threads for suppressor attachments.
The man reached Kino just as she was starting Hermes, a short distance from the woman.
“Kino. Hermes. Thank you for sitting through all of that. And thank you for making her happy. I mean it. Thank you so much,” he said with a smile.
Kino gave a wry grin. “I’d have left if you weren’t sitting there behind her.”
“I knew you’d say that,” the man replied with a chuckle.
Kino narrowed her eyes. “We happened across thirteen corpses on a rocky mountain a week ago. None of them had fired a single shot. They were all killed with .45 caliber bullets. Yours.”
The man nodded. “They listened to the whole spiel too, but afterwards, they came after us to kill me and get at her. So I put them to rest,” he said indifferently.
“This might be a rude question,” Kino said, “But why are you escorting her? Your skills could get you much better work.”
“Yeah. And you’re total opposites, too,” Hermes agreed.
“Because I love her,” the man answered without missing a beat.
“I’ve loved her for years. We were born and raised in the same country. She was always against violence. Said violence was always wrong, and that love could solve everything. But I believed that without power, you wouldn’t be able to do anything. That you wouldn’t be able to protect the weak from violence. So I studied combat, marksmanship, and other fighting skills. After finishing school, I joined the military. I thought she was a weirdo. But at some point, I fell for her like a ton of bricks. I don’t know why, and I don’t care. I always loved coming home on leave and listening to her lecture me on the folly of violence.”
The man glanced back. The woman was sitting on a rock, looking up at the sky with a contented expression.
“Once we were both adults, she told me she wanted to go on a journey around the world to preach love and peace. That that was her mission in life. Everyone tried to stop her, but she wouldn’t listen. She started preparing by herself. So I quit the military and asked her to let me go with her.”
“I’m surprised she let you,” Kino remarked.
“It was easy. I told her that she convinced me to leave the military. I told her I would preach love and peace with her, even if it meant I was just her luggage boy. And she said yes.”
“I see.” “I get it.”
“Her ideals might never come true, but I love seeing her so happy and optimistic. I love watching her charge straight for her goal. And I want to protect her, ideologies be damned. I’ll be by her side, doing all the dirty work and taking lives if necessary. For her sake, I’m willing turn the whole world against me,” he said quietly.
“Sounds like you’re ready to declare war on the world,” Hermes joked.
“I see,” Kino said, and added, “Your story was more interesting than hers.”
“Thanks. Take care, then. Hope we run into each other again,” the man replied, holding out his right hand. “Until then, shoot anyone who tries to kill you.”
“Thank you. I will,” Kino replied, accepting the handshake.