* * *
Chapter 3: The Country of Fireworks
-Fire at Will!-
“It’s hot, Kino,” said the motorrad.
The motorrad had two compartments hanging from either side of its rear wheel, and a large suitcase and a sleeping bag secured to the luggage rack. It was propped up on its stand.
“It is,” replied Kino, the rider. She was a young human with short black hair and large eyes. Kino wore an unbuttoned black vest over her white shirt, and had a belt around her waist. Secured to her right thigh was a holstered hand persuader.
They were in a forest surrounded by low mountains, stopped on the lone road through the woods. The path was dirt-paved and lined with trees, making it hard to see anything beyond.
Kino sat in the shade of a particularly large tree on the roadside.
The forest was hot and humid, the air mercilessly dense and heavy. A gentle wind caressed the very tops of the trees, which enjoyed a privilege everything below did not. Hundreds of cicadas wailed from every direction.
Kino took a sip from her water canteen. “And it’s lukewarm.”
“I’m not surprised.”
Though she was completely still, a droplet of sweat slid down her cheek. Overhead was a clear sky ruthlessly lit by the summer sun. At her feet, an ant was crawling across a mosaic of shadow and sun-cast dirt.
“I hope the next country has air conditioning… I just want some relief, even if it’s only three days… Even if it’s only at night,” Kino mumbled.
“What if they don’t even have fans or showers?”
“I don’t want to think about it.”
Kino rose from her seat. She slapped away the dirt, put away her canteen, and put on the hat she had been fanning herself with.
“Let’s go, Hermes. We’re almost there.”
“All right,” Hermes replied.
Kino climbed on and started the engine. The engine began roaring, and the cicadas nearby kicked up their cries a notch, as if trying to compete.
The forest was hotter than a sauna, and loud to boot.
“Finally,” Kino exhaled, screeching to a stop. The forest on one side of the road gave way to a sudden drop-off, clearing the view. Beyond was a rugged green land and a grey wall rising into the sky. The wall followed the slopes of the mountains, their heights often slightly mismatched.
“Maybe you can go for a swim,” Hermes said. On the left side of the wall, to the south, was something blue—and it was not the sky.
Kino and Hermes followed the road and reached the bottom of a valley. They continued forward and finally reached the wall.
“Wow,” Hermes exclaimed. Kino stopped and looked up.
The wall was towering over the woods. The section they reached stood like a dam filling the valley, rising higher than the mountains on either side and almost high enough to be level with the rest of the wall. Kino and Hermes stood in its shadow.
Upon closer inspection, the wall was sleek and showed signs of being patched up with plates of the same material.
“Is this some kind of stone?” Hermes wondered. “I don’t think it’s metal.”
“It looks hard.”
At the far end of the road was the door into the wall, firmly shut and made of the same material. It would have been unrecognizable if not for the outline marked around it. There was no one around. Not even a guardhouse stood there.
Amidst the cries of the cicadas, Kino disembarked and approached the wall. “I see a button here, around hand-level.”
“Buttons are meant to be pressed.”
Kino pressed the button.
There was an electronic chime.
Kino took off her hat to wipe the sweat from her brow, when she heard a voice from the wall.
“Hello? Ah, a traveler! Please come in. I’ll open the door for you in a second.”
The door slowly slid up.
“Wow, security’s really light,” Hermes said. Kino looked equally confused.
It was not long afterwards that the door opened completely and Kino and Hermes understood why.
Beyond the door was another wall.
They went through the same process and stepped through the second wall.
Beyond that was a third wall. The third wall’s door did not open until the one behind it closed.
The gaps between the walls were perpetually shaded from the sun, but the air was still thick and hot. Overhead, Kino could see the narrow sky, sliced longways by the walls around her.
The mountains on either side also looked like slices. They had been completely cleared of trees, the grassy slopes left dotted with large rectangular boxes.
“Those containers are traps. If the country gets invaded, they blow up charges and drop them into the gaps in the walls to block the doors,” Hermes explained.
Past the third door, they found the fourth door and a building that seemed to be buried in the wall. An immigrations officer was waiting outside.
The moment they stepped through the door, Kino gave a quiet sigh.
“Is the air conditioning a bit cold for you, Traveler?” asked the officer.
Kino and Hermes were granted permission for entry without much in the way of bureaucracy.
According to the immigrations officers, this country received very few visitors. Kino and Hermes were the first travelers to arrive in half a year.
“Welcome to our country, Kino. Hermes. Are you visiting for the fireworks festival?” asked one of the officers, a middle-aged woman.
Kino shook her head. The officers were surprised.
“You’re in luck. We’re holding our annual summer fireworks festival tomorrow night on the south beach. It’s a spectacular event. Don’t miss it!”
Beyond the fourth wall, the road in the forest valley continued. But this time, it was paved and even lined with streetlights.
Kino opened the map she received at the guardhouse.
Mountains covered most of the country, and the southern edge was a bay with a twisting shoreline. The walls encircled the entire country, opening at the bay.
At the center of the bay was an arc-shaped beach, and a street in the middle that led northward. That area was the only flatland in the country, with residences crowding the vicinity of the thoroughfare. At the northern end of the road were government offices and properties, behind which were the mountains.
“We’re right around here,” Kino said, pointing at the easternmost gate. They had a long way to go before they reached the middle of the country.
Kino and Hermes continued westward. The road climbed up the mountain and twisted along the range. Wide guardrails painted white lined the edge of the pavement.
“This is much easier to run on,” Hermes said.
The sun continued beating down on them, and the pavement exuded heat. But Kino and Hermes continued onwards, eventually spotting a large cemetery on the mountainside to their right. The land was turned into a large staircase dotted with headstones arranged neatly on each level.
Further along, the valley began to widen. They spotted more houses on the way, and more vehicles on the road. All the vehicles were the same four-wheel-drive models, identical save for the coloring.
“That’s funny. Is that the only model in the country?” Hermes wondered.
“I’m not sure. Maybe it’s a fad.”
Once they were out of the valley, Kino and Hermes found themselves in the flatlands at the center of the map. The country was suddenly bustling with life, filled with buildings and people.
Kino and Hermes finally reached the thoroughfare that vertically bisected the country. It was wide with many lanes, pointed directly at the sea in the south, and congested because it was almost dusk. Running down the middle of the street was an elevated walkway lined with trees, which served as a pedestrian path and a park. People carrying parasols went to and fro.
After making a right, Kino and Hermes waited for the signal to change. That was when a large armored vehicle emerged from a side street and turned the corner in front of them. It was angular with tires the height of a small child. But contrary to its design, the vehicle was unarmed and painted a bright orange.
The armored vehicle came to a stop past the corner. The metal door at the back opened, and people in ordinary clothing spilled onto the sidewalk. Sweaty commuters who had been waiting in line boarded the vehicle to replace them. Once everyone was aboard, the door closed and the vehicle rejoined traffic, lights blinking.
“You think that’s supposed to be a bus, Kino?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a fad.”
The officers had directed Kino and Hermes to a hotel in the city. It was a small three-story building at the back of the thoroughfare.
The hotel was heavily air-conditioned, cold enough to be a separate country from the city outside. Kino and Hermes were welcomed into their room. It was neither too large nor too small.
“It’s nice and cool here,” Kino said, collapsing onto bed and looking up at the ceiling.
“Sure, sure. Don’t fall asleep, Kino. You have things to do,” Hermes nagged.
Reluctantly, Kino got up and unloaded her things. And she took out a small bag from her suitcase. It contained dirty shirts and other items of clothing.
“Hygiene is important, Kino. You can’t go out in public wearing a stinky shirt.”
Kino asked the hotel if she could borrow a washing machine. She turned down their paid laundromat services and chose to use a washing machine free of charge.
By the time she had strung up a rope in her room and hung her clothes to dry, it was evening.
“Good job, Kino.”
Afterwards, Kino had dinner, enjoyed a thorough shower, and quickly fell asleep.
The next day, Kino rose at dawn.
She did maintenance on her persuaders and did quiet exercises and drills before taking another shower. Then she folded up her soft, dry clothes and put them into her suitcase.
During breakfast, Kino heard small popping noises outside. Someone explained that it was a signal declaring that the weather was good enough for the fireworks to take place as scheduled.
Kino smacked Hermes awake and set out to sightsee.
The sky was clear. Wispy clouds floated by in small clumps, doing nothing to shield the world from the blinding morning sun. It was warm, and only likely to get warmer.
The hotel management recommended that Kino and Hermes visit the civic centers at the end of the thoroughfare. The district was almost deserted because it was a holiday. The wooden buildings had originally been temples, boasting a distinct architectural style. To the north was a dense forest and a park with a pond. There was also a roofed stage with a sign that read, ‘Historic Dance Hall’.
A long staircase ran up the mountainside. Kino parked Hermes and climbed the stairs alone. When she turned, she saw the thoroughfare and the beach and the sea at the end. The water was a beautiful blue, its surface reflecting the sky. Each wave distorted its color and created multicolored ripples. Green mountains bordered either side of the sea, each topped by the end of the country’s walls and a tall lighthouse.
When Kino climbed back down, she found countless pigeons perched on Hermes.
“I won’t get mad if you decide to have all these pigeons for dinner today, Kino,” said the white mass hidden in the flock.
“It’s so hot.”
“Why not go for a swim?”
Kino and Hermes went to the thoroughfare and drove due south, reaching the seaside. The coast went on in a perfect arc, dotted by small restaurants and leisure facilities. Beach-goers relaxed on the sand and enjoyed the water as Kino and Hermes watched from the roadside.
“And you don’t even have a swimsuit. It’s perfect,” Hermes remarked.
The locals were having a wonderful time, wearing absolutely nothing.
They returned to the hotel for lunch.
“I’ll need to get some rest now if I want to stay up late.”
Back in her room, Kino put the air conditioning on full-blast and wrapped herself up in her blankets and sheets.
“This is heavenly…”
“Only because you’re dirt-poor.”
“Wake me up on time.”
Afternoon was halfway gone by the time Kino opened her eyes. She took Hermes down the thoroughfare to the beach once more, where crowds were beginning to gather. Stalls were popping up by the road and colorful mats decorated the beach.
Kino gave up on getting a seaside seat and parked Hermes on the sidewalk. She took a seat on the ‘No Vehicles Past This Point’ sign next to him.
Watching the beach fill up, they waited for the festival to begin.
The sun slowly fell towards the mountains, and the sky was dyed a reddish orange. Daylight faded and the walls swallowed the sun. Lights came on in the stalls.
Several ships were floating close to shore. The decks of the metallic mid-sized vessels were fully loaded with cargo covered in silvery sheets. The mountainsides on either side of the beach were crowded with vehicles, also loaded with covered cargo.
“They’re shooting the fireworks from the ships and the vehicles.”
“Hm. Have you ever seen fireworks, Kino?”
“Not on this scale.”
Traffic began to clear as festival-goers finished gathering. Kino asked Hermes to wait and departed, coming back with a large paper bowl.
“They were selling it at that stand. They shave ice until it’s fine dust, and top it with sugar-boiled beans and sweet syrup. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I like it. It’s cold and sweet.”
Kino took a big spoonful of ice and ate.
“You’ll get a stomachache if you eat that much ice,” Hermes warned.
The sun finally set completely. The last glow of daylight was sucked into the horizon, and the sky grew darker. A soft breeze blew in from the right, sapping heat from the pavement.
Kino grimaced mid-bite.
“I learned something about this dessert.”
“If you eat too much at once, it gives you a headache…”
“I don’t believe this…”
Small popping noises punctuated the air as three streams of white smoke were sprayed into the sky.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. For once, we’re glad the forecast was wrong. No showers are expected tonight, and the show will go on as scheduled,” said the emcee’s voice, “Now, let the show begin!”
There was a wave of applause. People on the ships and by the vehicles on the mountainsides immediately got to work, pulling off the waterproof sheets from the piles of cargo.
The ships spewed fire.
Bright red fireballs rose into the air from the ships lined in a row. Hundreds of thousands of burning particles burst like airborne fountains. A second later, a ripping noise hit the beach.
As the crowds clapped, the fireworks shrieked into the air in arcs and fell into the sea.
Then the fountains of fire began to tremble. The lines they drew in the sky curved left and right, like curtains in the breeze.
For a moment, the lights faded and the last spark disappeared. But the darkness was quickly broken again by a splendid display of color, as lines of light crisscrossed in the dark purple sky. The ships on the sea, lit by blinding yellow glows, cast long shadows on the water’s surface.
The second the lights from below came to an end, red fireworks came flying from the mountainsides. They rose up in the blink of an eye, crossed, and disappeared past the mountains.
“So this is what a real fireworks show is like,” Kino gasped.
“I don’t think this is a normal fireworks show,” said Hermes.
“Really?” Kino asked, eyes locked on the lights in the sky.
“They don’t normally use stuff like that,” Hermes replied. The fireworks from the ships were being fired out of 20mm gatling guns, which could launch 100 rounds per second out of six barrels.
“But it’s still beautiful,” said Kino. Three blinding lights rose from the ships, one from the center and two from either side, crossing into a triangle in the sky.
Tense of thousands of rounds later, the fireworks show came to an end.
Smoke filled the air over the beach.
“Please stand by for the next performance,” said the emcee.
Kino scooped up another spoonful of ice and shoveled it into her mouth.
The ships on the water began to move, eventually all disappearing from sight.
“Thank you for your patience. Please sit back and enjoy our annual underwater fireworks show.”
A lone ship began zooming across the water from the left side of the beach to the right, dropping round objects in its wake.
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.
The objects exploded in the sea, sending columns of water rocketing into the air around pillars of orange blasts. The shapes held for only a second at a time, each column replaced by another as soon as it fell. The impacts from the blasts carried across the water and the beach all the way to the road.
The pillars went all the way across the venue, until the ship made a U-turn and doubled back. They went from right to left this time, crossing the bay again.
“Those are fueled depth charges. What a waste,” Hermes muttered, his voice drowned out by a deafening wave of applause.
Once the smoke had cleared, the emcee’s laid-back voice returned. “Next, we have this year’s special display. Please direct your attention to the left side of the beach.”
For a split second, a long, thin stream of light shot into the air from the mountainside on the left. A massive cylinder was launched into the air, sparks shooting behind. At the same time, it began to spin in a trail of smoke. Cubical boxes were stuck to the cylinder like scales, densely clustered together.
The moment the cylinder crossed the beach, brilliant orbs of light came spilling out of the boxes. They were scattered from the spinning cylinder, drawing a spiral high up in the sky.
The spiral of light filled the world above like a gigantic path into the heavens. Everyone squinted, their pupils shrinking. The sky in the background looked even darker. The audience cheered even more loudly.
Eventually, the spiral began to collapse. But the orbs of light continued to shine as they fell like snow over the midsummer beach. The surface of the water caught the lights and mirrored them, instantly filling the world with the glow.
The orbs slowly drifted down and touched the sea, extinguishing themselves and their mirror images. When the final light disappeared, a hushed darkness fell over the beach.
The surface-to-surface missile equipped with flare dispensers flew off into the distance, never to return.
The fireworks show continued. Blinding lights swung back and forth in midair before falling to the sea. Hundreds of white lights exploded. Glowing red orbs drew shaky lines in the sky. Flares attached to parachutes. Cannon shells programmed to explode in midair. Gatling rounds. All fired from the mountainsides.
The display lit up the beach as clear as day.
Kino looked around. She saw families with children, couples, and friends enjoying the show from the road. The lights would engrave themselves into the audience’s memories as they looked on with smiles on their faces.
Silently, Kino rose from her seat and took three steps to reach Hermes. She sat on the luggage rack.
“What is it?” asked Hermes, light reflecting off his fuel tank.
“Want some?” Kino offered, holding out her bowl.
“I appreciate the sentiment.”
Sitting on Hermes, Kino watched the dazzling show and finished the rest of her melting ice.
The sea breeze was getting stronger and colder.
The flurry of light and sound suddenly disappeared. Signals went off again to mark the end of the show.
People returned home on armored buses or by foot.
The crowds passed by with smiles on their faces and conversations on their lips. The cool breeze and the crashing of the waves filled the ambience. And Kino and Hermes remained, waiting for the roads to clear.
When they returned to the hotel, Kino had a cup of tea. The manager asked her about the festival. Kino replied that it was beautiful.
“But isn’t it a waste, using weapons for stuff like this?” asked Hermes. The balding middle-aged manager was taken aback.
“Oh, didn’t you know?”
“About what?” “No.”
“Then let me explain. Those weapons and the ammunition—they’re all gifts,” the manager said, taking a seat across from Kino. “We didn’t manufacture them. You saw the ships, right? Once a month or so, one of those ships reaches our shores, unmanned, with containers of the stuff. Military gear and weapons, I mean.”
“It really is a gift.”
“We have no idea. And we don’t know why they’re sending these things, either. They started arriving about a hundred years ago, when we were still a small country. No one came to get them, so we decided to accept them as gifts from above and made use of them.”
“I see. So the four-wheel-drive and armored vehicles are gifts too?”
“Indeed they are. They’ve made transportation so much easier. And the ships have been very helpful for our fisheries. We take apart the freight containers and use them for our buildings and walls. But we ran into a problem.”
“We have too much of the stuff. It’s wonderful that cars are easy to get, but now everyone has one or more, and the roads are always congested. Before we knew it, we had four layers of walls around us. Is there any point to building more? These days, we’ve been dumping containers in the mountains.”
“I thought they were traps,” Hermes said, shocked.
The manager shook his head. “We have no need for traps. After all, we’ve never been attacked. We don’t even have a military, for that matter. No neighbors nearby to invade us, after all.”
“So that’s why you have so many weapons left over,” Kino concluded.
“That’s right. It’s honestly a headache, having all these missiles and machine guns and explosives on our hands. For a while we dumped them in the mountains outside the country, but one day the area was struck by lightning, causing a massive explosion. After that, we tried to dispose of them by firing them over the sea, but the government received noise complaints.”
“That’s how they came up with the fireworks show?” asked Hermes.
“Yes. We decided to take a different perspective. We could use up all the materials at once, and make it an annual event for the public. It was two birds with one stone—now we have a wonderful festival that the whole country looks forward to. I can’t wait for next year’s show.”
The next day. It was the third day since Kino’s arrival.
Kino and Hermes left through the western gates. They resumed their journey down the forest path.
Not long after leaving the country, they encountered a steep climb that seemed to reach into the blue skies.
“People,” Hermes said. Kino stopped.
They were at a mountaintop obscured by trees. There Kino spotted four men in green.
They were in camouflage gear with their faces and hands also painted green. The men were moving their things onto a small four-wheel-drive vehicle parked by the roadside.
“H-hello!” One of the men noticed Kino and Hermes, surprised. Kino turned off the engine and stepped off.
“Are you a traveler? You must be coming from that country over there,” said another man.
“We’ve come from a country in the north as scouts. Scoping out that display they do every year like clockwork.”
“You’re scoping them out?” “Don’t you mean ‘enjoy’?” asked Kino and Hermes.
The man shook his head. “No. It is our mission to keep an eye on the countries closest to us. This country happens to be one of them, and the most dangerous. I’m sure you could tell from the scale of their drills last night. All those assets they invest into their training exercises.”
“Oh. Er…right,” Kino said, nodding.
“They pose a grave threat to our nation. They’re surrounded by layers of walls and possess mass quantities of weapons and artillery. Our country lives in constant fear of an invasion. They show no signs of aggression yet, but we can never let our guard down. Which is why we make sure to catch their annual drills no matter what.”
“Huh. Must be tough work, coming all this way in the heat,” said Hermes. The men chuckled bitterly.
“We’re more or less used to it now. Good thing, too, since we’ll be back next year.”
Kino and Hermes said goodbye to the men and continued down the endless road through the forest. It was hot and humid.
When they reached a road that led from east to west, Kino lowered the bill on her hat. The trees provided ample shade everywhere else.
“The fireworks were beautiful,” said Hermes.
Kino nodded. “Yeah. It was nice getting to see a real fireworks show.”
“I told you, that wasn’t a normal one.”
“Yeah. But what matters is that it was beautiful.”
The motorrad laden with travel gear continued on its way through the forest filled with the cries of cicadas.
* * *
Chapter 4: The Country with an Elder
-I Need You-
Once upon a time, there was a country nestled in a wide valley in the rugged mountains.
The country's walls, houses, and city were made of stone carved from the mountains. They were ancient relics built by people in the distant past, now used by their descendants—or settlers who weren't.
Horse-drawn carriages went by at a comfortable pace. Large oxen were being used to plough the fields. It was a simple and peaceful land.
For generations, the country had been guided by a spiritual leader.
Such a person was called an Elder.
The Elder was chosen from among the public through a strictly impartial drawing of lots. The person was then educated and assigned to important tasks. The Elder would abide by strict laws and serve the people as a shining example.
The current Elder was a man just over fifty years of age. He was chosen shortly before the passing of the previous Elder, and had gracefully done all that was required of him for the past two decades. He was respected by the people as their leader.
But half a year ago, the Elder suddenly vanished. The people searched high and low for him, but he was nowhere to be found. They had no idea how he managed to disappear from the country.
Not long afterwards, they received a message from a group of bandits from the mountains. To the people's shock, they announced that they had kidnapped the Elder, and were demanding a ransom for his safe return.
Because the Elder was a very important person, the people all did as the bandits demanded and gathered jewelry, food, and clothing to offer in exchange for the Elder.
But the bandits did not let the Elder go. They continued to threaten his safety, demanding even more from the people in exchange for his continued well-being.
And the people grew tired.
One day, a traveler came to the village. It was a rare occurrence for the country.
She was an elegantly-dressed young woman who had driven there on an old and battered car. On the holster tied over her right side was a high-caliber persuader.
Something about her told the people that she was strong.
The leaders of the country explained the situation to the woman, fully prepared for rejection. They asked her if she could kill the bandits for them.
The woman asked for details about the bandits' headquarters. Everyone explained to her that the headquarters were at the top of the valley, and that it was impossible to approach from the bottom. The distance also made it impossible to snipe at them from the opposite side of the valley.
The woman thought for a moment and said, "How much will you pay me?"
Once upon a time, there was a valley nestled in the stony, rugged mountains.
The valley was two kilometers wide and hundreds of meters deep. The river that flowed at its base looked like a thread from the top, far enough to give anyone vertigo.
A winding path led up the valley. It was a very narrow road, just wide enough for a car to squeeze through.
At a high place by the road at the top of the valley were a group of huts. One large hut and several smaller ones. This was the bandits' headquarters.
It was morning.
Wispy clouds highlighted the light blue sky. It was a beautiful morning in early summer, when the high-altitude plants moist with the evening fog were at the peak of their beauty.
In front of the huts were three men standing guard with persuaders in hand. Smoke and the smell of food wafted from inside.
One bandit stepped out of the hut, holding a steaming mug of tea. He walked up to one of the guards and handed it to him.
The moment the guard took the mug with a word of thanks, the two men were enveloped by a bright light.
The radiant sun rose from between the mountain peaks past the opposite side of the valley. The sun illuminated both the headquarters and the valley in a matter of seconds.
The guard narrowed his eyes, raised his mug, and greeted the morning sun.
"Another day," he said. At that very moment, his height was reduced by half.
The man's torso had exploded. His upper body fell at an angle, spilling intestines and blood everywhere. His mug clattered to the ground, too.
The other man stood in utter confusion until his chest burst as his arms and head hit the dirt.
One second later, two gunshots rang out loud and clear across the valley.
Another bewildered guard was blown away.
"E-enemy attack!" another man shouted. Those were his last words.
The two men who emerged from the hut were destroyed simultaneously.
"A sniper! Someone's shooting us down!" one man yelled as he ducked, listening to the deep and terrible bursts of noise. It was like thunder was raining down on them.
A hail of bullets assaulted the hut at the very end. Splinters erupted from the hut each time it took a hit, and it finally collapsed. The people who were sleeping inside were all crushed by the falling rubble.
The other small huts soon collapsed, too. A rolling log fell into the crack of the valley, taking with it several men who were laying flat on the ground before it.
Several bandits holding rifles ran out of the large hut and took shelter behind a rock. But they couldn’t tell where the enemy was shooting from, and panicked.
Soon the storm of bullets fell on the boulder, demolishing it in about three hits and blowing apart the three people who were taking shelter behind it.
At the top of the other side of the valley was a woman.
She was sitting on the ground with her legs forward and her back to the sun. In front of her was a sturdy metal tripod, upon which was mounted a persuader as long as a grown man was tall.
This kind of persuader was usually mounted on top of tanks, used to pierce through sturdy things like trucks or armored vehicles. It was not normally for use against humans.
Affixed to the persuader was a scope that looked thick enough to be used in an astronomical observatory.
The woman peered through the scope. She could clearly see the panicking bandits on the other side of the valley.
She took hold of the two rods at the end of the persuader. The woman carefully took aim and pushed the launch lever once with her thumb.
The shot was fired with a terrifying boom. The heavy persuader was rocked by the recoil. Gas poured out of the barrel, hissing and shaking the air. If she hadn't poured water over the ground beforehand, the ensuing cloud of dust might have blinded her completely. An empty shell casing, big enough to use as a vase, fell to the ground.
A huge projectile that made a rifle look powerless in comparison cut through the air, crossed the valley, and halved one man's body mass.
The woman saw through her scope the bandits dragging out a middle-aged man.
"Hey! Can you see this?! Cease fire, or we will kill this man!"
It was obvious that no amount of shouting would get the message across the valley, so the bandits opted to use body language. They made the Elder kneel on the ground, put an automatic persuader to his head, and leered at the direction the shots were coming from. The glare made it impossible for them to see anything but the sun. Their eyes began to hurt.
The Elder, now with a full beard grown over his face, knelt on the ground with his hands in the air and a lost look on his face.
"We will shoot!" The bandit made shooting gestures with his persuader multiple times. He poked the Elder in the head with the barrel.
The woman could see clearly. but she continued to fire away as though it didn't matter.
Each time she fired a shot, the ox that had carried her heavy equipment up the valley trembled as it stood tethered behind her.
"CAN'T YOU SEE THIS?! WE'RE REALLY GOING TO SHOOT!" the bandit with his persuader fixed on the Elder yelled loudly, but the shots just kept on coming. People rushed out of the large hut, but they were powerless to escape death. Even the people still in the huts were killed by the shots that penetrated the walls.
The speechless bandit stood at the top of the valley, where only he and the Elder were still alive. Then, one final shot made its way towards him.
The Elder, who was kneeling on the ground with his hands in the air, slowly looked around. The location formerly known as the bandits' headquarters was now their grave. It looked almost like the aftermath of a tomato-throwing festival.
A long time had passed since the final gunshot. The Elder slowly tried to stand up. Suddenly, a shot flew in, cutting through the wind, and blasted apart the boulder behind him. The terrified Elder flinched and sat on the ground again.
Yet more time passed.
The Elder slowly tried to lay down on the ground. This time, the shot came in to the other side, snapping in two a log that had been part of a hut.
"It's a warning shot. I think it's best you stay still."
The Elder obeyed.
The sun was high up in the sky and the blood splattered across the ground was just starting to dry.
As the Elder sat with his face covered in sweat, he heard something like the clip-clop of a horse climbing up the valley. As it got closer, the Elder realized that it was indeed the sound of a horse.
A woman with long black hair dismounted, pulling a large revolver from the holster over her right thigh.
She cautiously approached the Elder.
"You're the Elder, right? I've been hired by your country."
"I…I'm alive…" the Elder managed to mumble, after moments of dumbstruck gaping as he looked up at the woman. He nodded several times in response to the woman's question.
"Of course. Now, I'd like to ask you a few things, Elder. But before that…" The woman pointed her revolver at a bandit lying about two meters behind the Elder. He was a slightly short but handsome young man covered in blood. "You there, get up."
The man opened his eyes. he got up and slowly wiped the sweat from his face, making it clear that he was unarmed. He then raised his hands into the air. "And I was so sure you wouldn't catch me…"
"What are you talking about? I saw you. The first thing you did was take cover behind the Elder," the woman said. "Elder, can you stand?"
The Elder got up. He then took up the hand persuader that one of the bandits was threatening him with earlier, severed arm and all.
"Rotten bandits! How dare you?!"
The Elder shook off the arm from the persuader and pointed it at the man who sat with his hands in the air.
"Elder, we need at least one person alive as a witness. I know how you must feel, but don't kill him," the woman said, holstering her revolver. The Elder lowered the persuader without pulling the trigger. The man shrugged.
"What did my countrymen tell you about me?" the Elder asked the woman.
"They were all very worried about you," she replied.
"I see…" the Elder mumbled, and pointed the hand persuader at the woman.
The man with his hands in the air shrugged again.
"Hah!” the elder snorted. “Them? Worried about me?! Don't make me laugh! Hey! Hands in the air!" he yelled, anger spreading over his face.
"What are you doing? I’m not following your logic, Elder," the woman said calmly, raising her hands to just above shoulder-level.
"It makes perfect sense! If you take me back, they'll forced me to work for nothing again! All because I'm the Elder! I’m sick of that life! Those bastards just picked me at random and took me away from everything I loved! I can't even see my family when I want to see them! I couldn't even be at my parents' deathbeds! They forced me to live as the Elder! They forced me to act 'respectably'! They wasted half of my life! It’s not me they want back—they want an Elder. Any Elder will do! I never want to go back to that prison again!" the Elder yelled in one breath. He then lowered his voice. "That's why I'm going to kill you and run away somewhere. I was just getting sick of living with these imbecilic bandits, anyway. I'll go on a journey and start my life over. I've got money, and you've even brought me a horse."
"Don't be so mean to us, Elder. After all, we just did everything you told us to do," the man said.
"Apologies, young man. I owe you a great deal for all of this. Will you come with me? I'll make you my subordinate."
"I'll have to decline."
"Then once I kill this woman, I'll make sure to kill you as well." The Elder grinned.
The man, with his hands still in the air, turned to the woman, who was also holding her hands in the air.
"Hey, Miss Revolver. What do you think about this man?"
"I wonder. I have a lot of thoughts, sure, but now isn't the time for this, is it?"
The man and the woman looked at the Elder.
The woman spoke. "Elder, there's one thing I want to ask you."
The Elder grinned. "What is it? Trying to beg for mercy?"
"No. It's just that you escaped your 'prison' without anyone noticing. Everyone's very curious to know how you did."
"That's it?" The Elder snorted. "It's simple. When I was a student, I studied archaeology. I used to research the structure of this country. One day, I happened to hear from an old man that the sewers were once used as an emergency escape route for kings. No one knows about it now, and that's how I left the country. That's when I met these foolish bandits. How lucky I was that everyone did exactly as I wished!"
"I see." The woman nodded. The man also looked as though he was marveling at the revelation. "A wonderful escape route. It would be best to block it off as soon as possible."
"Of course. Now you finally start talking sense. But it's too late." The Elder chuckled. he then pointed the persuader at the woman. "Now, you're going to have to die for me. Where should I shoot first? Your arms? Legs? Well? Where do you suggest? Hm?"
As the Elder spoke with a delighted look on his face, the man shook his head, exasperated.
"I'll start with your legs!" the Elder spat, pointing the persuader at the woman's legs and pulling the trigger.
A clear click rang out across the valley.
The Elder pulled the trigger again. There was another clear click.
"Elder, that persuader's not loaded. See that red mark beside the hole where the empty shells are supposed to come out? It’s not gonna shoot anything," the man said.
The woman slowly drew her revolver and pointed at the Elder, who scrambled to load his persuader. She pulled the trigger.
"Ah, too late."
"Actually, Elder," the woman said, looking down upon the fallen Elder. "I received three requests from your country. The first was to eliminate the bandits, and the second was to figure out the secret of your escape. The third was to come back to their country to report that the Elder was already dead. The leaders of your homeland have already abandoned you. But they couldn't just make that public, since the people are still waiting for you. So they asked me to claim that you were dead, whether or not you actually were. Then the people would believe that you were killed by the bandits, and would move on to choose a new Elder. Maybe even as soon as tomorrow. I heard it's going to be decided by drawing lots again."
The Elder was silent.
"So you're free, as long as you don't go back to that country. They said you could go anywhere you pleased. And now I've held up my end of the bargain."
The Elder was silent. The man spoke in his place. "I'm so happy for you, Elder! You got your wish after all!"
The Elder was lying flat on the ground, looking up at the sky with his eyes wide open.
Blood was flowing from his mouth.
"Well, now." The woman holstered her revolver and turned to the man.
The man had already gotten to his feet, wiping off someone else's drying blood off himself with a grimace.
"You weren't one of the bandits to begin with, were you?" the woman asked.
The man wiped his bloodied hands on his pants and looked at the woman with his handsome face.
"My goodness. How did you know? Could you tell? Did you think, 'He moves too well to be a mere bandit', or 'He's good at thinking on his feet'?" the man asked cheerfully. But the woman shook her head.
"I saw a wanted poster with your face on it in a country I visited half a year ago. If only I'd found you a bit closer to that country, I could have turned in your head for the bounty."
"My job this time was to wipe out these men. You can go wherever you like."
"Then I suppose that's it, then. No more playing bandit for me. Well, then…" The man turned his back.
At that very moment, the woman said, "But you'll have to tell me where you put the money you stole from that country. I'll be taking it all."
The man looked up at the sky uncomfortably. He then turned on his heels and made the woman an offer.
"Could I at least keep half? After all, all labour deserves compensation."
"I want all of it."
"How about forty percent? I'm sure I have the right to at least that much…"
"I want all of it."
"Then thirty-five percent? I'm warning you, I'm not going any lower."
"I want all of it."
"Then let's settle for twenty percent…"
"I want all of it."
"I could help you carry it…"
"You're going to carry all of it."
"Nice weather today, don't you think?"
"Yes, it is."
"I want all of it."
The man fell into thought for a moment, eyes shut and arms crossed. He then finally opened his mouth again. "Please excuse me for being frank, but I just have to ask."
"Has anyone ever told you that you are absolutely heartless?"
A lone car was driving down the mountain road.
It was a tiny and battered vehicle that was by no means clean.
The car sputtered along at a comfortable speed, with a full view of the valley where the bandits had once lived. It was almost sunset.
The woman driving the car happened across a lone man on the roadside, which should have been deserted.
He was a slightly short but handsome young man, standing with a simple bag and a rifle slung over his shoulder. The man stuck his arm out towards the car with his thumb in the air.
The car stopped in front of him. The man approached the car.
"Sorry, but think you could give me a ride? I don't have any transportation or money, but I'm not too bad with a persuader. Course, a certain someone has me beat."
The man gestured towards the hand persuader holstered at his left side. It was a .22 caliber hand persuader with a square barrel.
"My favorite toy. I just couldn't part with it. Oh! I can also carry your luggage." The man grinned.
"I don't need a partner," the woman replied coldly, driving onward. The man followed after the car and shouted.
"Also! I can fix your persuader! That revolver of yours! The barrel and cylinder are both in pretty rough shape! They don't work like they used to, right?!"
The car stopped after about twenty meters. The man soon caught up.
The woman got out of the driver's seat. "You drive?"
The man energetically tossed his belongings into the back and took the driver's seat.
He waited for the woman to sit beside him and started the car.