Long, long ago, when even humanity's gods were young...
...lived a man named Orestes, son of Agamemnon the king. But Agamemnon, who had commanded the war against Ilios for a decade, lay dead.
Agamemnon's wife and queen, Clytemnestra, had in her husband's long absence fallen in love with one of his many rivals, a seductive man of fell repute named Aegisthus.
"Behold the twin tyrannies of our time," Orestes the prince lamented. "These two who murdered my father and sacked my house." So when Orestes returned to his father's lands, he slew Aegisthus, and said to his mother with his sword drawn and dripping, "you're next! The one in there has had enough."
Clytemnestra gaped at the sight. "My beloved Aegisthus, he is dead?"
"You truly loved the usurper, then? Why, I shall bury you in the same grave, that you shall be more faithful to him in death then ever you were with your husband in life." That was the end for Clytemnestra... almost.
Her spirit arose and lamented. "Because of my son I go dishonored thus, my bad name among the perished suffers no eclipse. And yet I too suffered, horribly, and from those most dear. The breast by which I suckled is hewn by that same babe. Look upon these gashes in my heart, think where they came from!"
So Clytemnestra called down upon her son a curse, and roused spirits ancient even in those long-gone days. "Awake!" she commanded the three daughters of Nyx, who was night. "Awake," she commanded the sleeping Erinyes.
To Alecto the Implacable she said, "You would sleep then? Of what use are you if you sleep?"
To Magaera, Jealous of Broken Vows, "you moan, you sleep! Get onto your feet, quickly!"
And to Tisiphone, Avenger of Murders, youngest of the crones she said, "Up! Let not all the world's weariness slacken you with sleep that you forget my pain."
Thus the sisters of wrath awoke from their rest. They pursued Orestes to destroy him, and with voices like the Sirens they sang.
"Hear our spell to bind you, link we our choral. He who stands before us with stained, hidden hands, and guilt upon him, shall find us beside him to avenge the blood of the murdered."
But the younger gods intervened. Bright Apollo stood against those, "who should hole in a lion's blood-reeking cave. Begone, you flock of goats without a herdsman, for no god nor man would shepherd such a brood!"
Brave Athena stood against those, "who are like no seed ever begotten, not seen ever by the gods as goddesses, nor yet stamped in the likeness of any human form."
And at Apollo's bidding, clever Hermes stole Orestes away. "Guard him, Hermes, you whose blood is brother unto mine, whose sire the same high god. Men call you guide and guard, guide therefore and guard Orestes my suppliant."
"Gods of the younger generation," the sisters sang, "you have ridden down the laws of the elder time, torn our prey from our hands, trampled our high office. Not all Apollo's strength nor Athena's wisdom nor Hermes' guile shall spare you from our wrath. Hear our chant, our stringless melody. Over the beasts doomed to the fire, o'er the victims sounding, chant of frenzy, chant of ill, sense and will confounding, binding brain and blighting blood, 'round the soul entwining. Hear the hymn of hel without lute or lyre, the Furies' fearful threnody."
The sisters have long memories, and cherish grudges dearer than jewels.
"Happiness is seeing that place in your rear-view mirror," Hermes quipped.
Kino and Hermes crested a hill, and Kino stopped so she could glance back at the miserable city behind them. Life had been difficult for her recently. First Koth-Shem, then the rains, then she'd lost her friend Gia before even getting to know her. So she'd hoped this oasis-city stuck in the midst of a shimmering desert would offer the perfect setting for a vacation. She'd never been more wrong.
This city was the place sailors had warned her about months ago, where people fought in a coliseum for their rights. Kino had yearned for precisely this moment, when she could take a long parting glance at it on her way out, with the happy thought that she'd never return.
The moment over, Kino steeled herself for another long, tedious and overheated trek through the desert.
"You should have explained, y'know," Hermes said.
"Shizu. You hurt his feelings. You should have told him why you didn't want to travel with him."
Shizu was a charming, handsome young man who'd competed against her in the arena. Kino wasn't interested.
"Hermes," she scolded him mildly, "I told you, that's private."
"I know. But you've been a little... different recently."
"I've never known you to seek out a fight if you could avoid it."
Kino took a long breath. "True."
"Or to put your life at risk without a very good reason."
There was a long pause.
"...uhh... not that it didn't work out just fine in the end."
"Did it? I wonder. The king's death threw that city into a crisis. Neither Shizu nor I stayed to guide the outcome. Things may just get worse there."
"If that's possible." Hermes wasn't above a little snarking.
About an hour before sunset, the pair reached the crest of a pass road. The valley below was verdant and fertile. They were clear of the desert, and Kino breathed a long sigh of relief.
"If you don't mind Hermes, I think we'll camp out early." Kino yawned. "I think all the stress of the past few days has finally caught up with me."
"Oh, absolutely!" Hermes answered. "You get some well-earned rest. I have plenty of other matters I need to tend to."
Kino killed the engine and dismounted. She paused beside her friend.
"You mean you're not just asleep when you're not running?"
"Alright, you tell me why you kept fighting and I'll answer that question."
Kino cocked an eyebrow, then grinned. "Aha! You're trying to rouse my curiosity. You're so clever, Hermes." She set about putting up her tent.
"And with typical human perversity, you're not gonna bite, are you?"
So Kino curled up into her sleeping bag and Hermes turned his mind to other affairs.
Kino sat miserably on a bench in the school office, swinging her stockinged shins idly. Soon she heard the familiar noise of the school bell and of children cheering the end of the day and rushing out into the sunlight, either to their buses or to the exercise yard. But not her, oh no! No, she was in deep trouble this time.
The principal's door opened, and a crying student emerged wearing the same short sleeves and prim skirt that Kino wore. "The principal will see you now," a voice said.
With a whimper of terror Kino recognized the student, her head shaven and bandaged, with a bloodied gauze sling taped under her nose–
–Kino jerked up in her tent! Then she peeked out with her revolver drawn.
"Something wrong?" Hermes asked, alarmed.
Kino looked around, then holstered her pistol and let her heart rate return to normal. The eastern sky was gray, and a colorless mist covered the world. Just before dawn, as usual.
"Bad dream," Kino murmured, her breath a white cloud at her lips. Winter had come during their time in the desert. She shivered.
"Oh! Sorry. Nothing's amiss out here, as far as I can tell."
By flashlight Kino donned her gunbelt and, as usual, she practiced her quick draw. Twenty times, half with her left whipping out the .22 at her back. Besides being good practice, it got the blood pumping.
"Tell me it wasn't another 'high school' dream?"
In the time she'd taken to practice, the awakening world had brightened from blackness beneath a cold sky to a kind of dreamy twilight. At least she could see what she was doing now. "Back in a moment," Kino muttered and went off to relieve herself.
She trudged out of sight, still shivering. Even without her answer, Hermes could tell. He'd almost asked about her health, but stopped himself. She'd be her normal self once she had some coffee and breakfast. He did make a mental note to nag her into talking about those dreams. At first "High School Kino" was amusing, but in his experience recurring dreams seldom boded well. Because of her parents' betrayal, little Kino had rushed headlong into adulthood. Deep down, did some part of her yearn for a normal childhood after all?
Not far away, Kino found a small depression surrounded by bushes and clattered down into it, still half asleep. After a moment, a red shadow lurched toward those bushes with the speed and silence of a tiger but none of the grace.
Kino straightened her clothing and tidied up. Her teeth chattered. Maybe it's time to break out the thermal gear. It'll be cold riding for the next– and that's when she saw it.
In the gray morning mist, it looked like a bloodstain on a white sheet. Then the first rays of the sun broke through and glinted off the gleaming red shape. Kino squeaked like a mouse and both weapons leapt into her hands.
A car? What is a car doing here? The crunch of stones under her boots were the only sounds in the slowly melting fog. Then Kino heard the music, as if someone inside had turned the volume up on a radio. But her guns had no target yet, because the vehicle's windows were so heavily tinted she couldn't see the driver. This thing wasn't here a moment ago, was it?
Warily, Kino approached it. Bright red mirror finish, white stripe, chrome trim... a pristine antique.
"You're listening to W-KIT, one hundred point three on the FM dial," a sexy female voice announced from inside. Another old song Kino didn't recognise promptly followed.
Is this the same car I saw a month ago? Is it following us? She glanced down at the plate: CQB 241. Bah! What're you so jumpy for? You just took on all comers, didn't you?
She holstered her twenty-two and put her hand on the handle... ice cold in her palm. With a quick pull, the door opened smoothly - Ufh, heavy! - revealing an empty seat of liver-red leather.
Wheel's on the left side, definitely not from around here. Imagine the petrol it would take to feed this monster! Can't be abandoned. The paint's showroom glossy and it's still got power. Why would they leave the radio on? This is somebody's pride and joy and they've gotta be nearby. Everything about this just feels... weird! She could sense a trap closing around her. The half-light made everything surreal. You don't suppose I'm still dreaming?
Kino peeked in, over to the back seat... still empty. Nothing horrid waited for her there. The interior was deliciously warm and humid, and an animal scent invited her inside. She noticed a modern AV system occupied the dashboard slot once held by the radio, from which a powerful, operatic contralto wailed a wordless melody from long before Kino's time. The traveler's hips unconsciously swayed to the slow beat. She found her eyes and then her fingers exploring the steering wheel and green-glowing dashboard. Kino abruptly realized she was cooing a counterpoint. Singing had always been one of her favorite pastimes, and that voice emanating from the AV was dynamite!
My, oh my! Sitting in this thing would be like climbing into a giant—
"The Great Gig in the Sky," the husky feminine voice purred. "Gone from the charts, but not from our hearts. Why don't you come on in, honey? You know you want to."
Kino's free hand was still running over the leather seat. Finally it froze. Kino's eyes widened and she recoiled so fast she bumped her head on the car's roof.
"Ack! Ow...!" Kino stumbled and fell backward on her butt. The silky voice from the radio laughed at her.
Kino's eyes darted about frantically, looking for whatever prankster was spying on her.
"Let's go for a ride, little lady. Let's cruise." Then the voice hummed along with the music again.
Kino climbed back onto her feet. Her wits failing her, the best she could manage was, "wuh... where are we going?"
"Who cares?" the car crooned. "Where do you wanna go?"
Kino blinked. It – she – talks. Heck, she sings! Despite it being cold enough to see her own breath, Kino noticed then that she was sweating, and her breathing was going funny. ...It's a she! This has to be be the same car Hermes called a "bad omen." But would... a little joyride hurt?
"You can talk," Kino blurted, delighted despite her apprehension. "You're like Hermes!"
The mood changed from sultry to hostile in an eye blink. The car's enticing musk changed to the stink of putrescence. The engine snarled awake and Kino back-peddled. She suddenly flashed to a moment when she was a child, overwhelmed by her parents' behavior, when the motorcycle behind her had started up, all on its own.
The engine revved. It's growling at me!
A vesuvian guitar-blast of musical hate erupted from the speakers. Thoroughly spooked, Kino took this ferocious new song's advice and ran, ran as fast as she could!
One dead sprint later she found Hermes and, without bothering with her tent or sleeping bag, kicked the starter.
"Kino, what happened?" Hermes asked, much alarmed. "Did you run into a bear?" Hermes rocketed forward as if on a catapult, sending clods flying.
"A car," Kino explained, her voice cracking. "It could talk, just like you!"
Hermes didn't answer. Kino noticed her arms were trembling as they held onto the bars and she willed them to stop.
"Are you hurt?" Hermes finally asked, with an oddly calm, low tone once they'd put a mile or two behind them. "What happened?"
"I'm..." she gulped. Her usual stoic act had completely failed her. "Hermes, she was trying to seduce me! There's really no other word for it. It was that car you were worried about, and even after you warned me I almost fell for..." Kino abruptly realized she was admitting to something very like an infidelity, and felt her face turning crimson even as real sunlight burned away the fog in her mind. Was that all just a dream?
"Hermes, I'm sorry," she finally said.
"Stop beating yourself up!" Hermes cut her off. "This is important: what was the make and model of the car?"
"Huh? Oh." She was startled to hear mild Hermes sound like that. His usual flippancy had vanished. Kino thought back, then struggled to pronounce the name. "Plymouth. The car was a Plymouth Fury. Why? Does that mean something to you?"
...feel the bile rising from your guilty past,
with your nerves in tatters as the cold shell shatters,
and the hammers batter down your door.
– You'd better run!
"Tell you a story, hap' a long time ago-oh."
Peter "Moochie" Welch had walked a quarter of a mile from the exit ramp in the deep, single-number cold, his cleated heels clicking on the deserted sidewalk. He had perhaps a mile to go when he saw the car parked at the curb up ahead. Exhaust curled out of its twin pipes and hung in the perfectly still air, still save for the faint strains of pop music.
"Little bitty pretty one..."
Moochie recognized the car. It was a two-tone Plymouth. In the light of the streetlamps the two tones seemed to be ivory and dried blood. A stupid sort of wonder flooded him. They had punched a dozen holes in the radiator of Arnie Cunningham's auto. They had dumped a nearly full bottle of Texas Driver into the carb, and funneled a five pound sack of Domino sugar into the gas tank, just for starters. All in all, ol' Cuntingham's car should not have moved under its own power for six months, if ever. So this had to be some other Plymouth Fury.
But it wasn't. He knew it. It was Christine.
It just sat there, idling. He opened his mouth to speak and produced no sound. He tried again and got out a croak. "Hey Cunningham. That you, Cunningham?" Moochie cleared his throat.
"Hey, you ain't mad, are you?"
The duals ignited, impaling him in blinding white light. The Fury peeled out, the tires screaming black slashes of rubber onto the pavement, with such sudden power that the rear end seemed to squat, like the haunches of a dog or a she-wolf.
The edge of the car's bumper barely flicked his left calf and took a chunk of meat. Moochie thudded hip-first onto the wet pavement. The warmth of his own blood made him realize in a confused way just how cold the night was.
He could hear the car's engine, that horrible unearthy shrieking of the undercarriage on the cement. The car was reversing, back up the gutter. He saw. He saw–!
There was no one behind the wheel.
Some stories only get you laughed at...
- until you tell them by a campfire, at night.
"Headlights!" Hermes bellowed. "Don't look. Peel out, go go go!"
"I can't see!" Kino shouted back over the thunderous noise of engines.
It had been almost a week, a week of skulking or tearing about at high speeds, of buying unusual supplies and weapons and finally heading to the mountains. It was bitter cold on pass roads, but they were perfect for a motorcyclist trying to out-drive a clumsy muscle car.
...At least any car that obeyed the laws of inertia and momentum.
They'd seen no further sign of the thing, but both sensed she was out there, prowling, waiting for the right moment. Kino and Hermes usually avoided night driving. Problem was, the winter days were short, and their pursuer didn't mind the dark, not one little bit.
Nevertheless, when the ambush came, it got 'em good. Kino found herself driving blind, hanging on and hoping for the best.
"Left! Left!" shouted Hermes over the roaring death behind them. Kino eased up on the throttle and just made the turn.
"I told you not to look," Hermes scolded. "Just go straight. I am not losing another driver and I'm not ending up in another junkyard!"
"I can see now," Kino said, still blinking furiously. The world was white, lit by the eye-gouging headlights just behind them. A hairpin curve to the right waited just ahead of them. Nothing but air waited beyond it, air and a landing they wouldn't walk away from.
"Like we planned, Kino," Hermes said. "Show me how good you are."
Kino reached into the satchel next to Hermes' saddle. Taking a hairpin one handed... ooooh, this was not such a good idea.
Kino made the turn, scraping her right shin and knee in the process. Her left hand tossed the caltrops backward.
"Yup, caltrops!" Hermes had told her. "You think we're gonna play nice and get you killed? Nothing doing!" Kino had never heard her longtime friend sound so vehement.
They made the turn, and were rewarded with the sounds of exploding tires.
"Yeah, yeah!" Hermes crowed as they came to a stop. "Now finish her off."
"We should just go. Let's get out of here."
"Kino, you don't know her like I do. She'll be up and after us again in two minutes. And once she's scented her prey she never quits."
Kino reached into a cargo pocket and produced two sticks of dynamite bound together. "Short fuse," she cautioned as she flicked a lighter.
"Then let's make it count," Hermes said. And they tore forward, toward the great gun-metal gray monster wallowing on its rims.
Gray? Kino's mind raced. It's gray? Wait, it was red before. What the heck?
Kino tossed the sticks just under the driver's side. Over the noise she thought she caught a driver shout a witheringly vulgar curse— then they hit the 'trops and Hermes own tires blew. The world spun and both Kino and Hermes tumbled roughly to a halt.
Kino hadn't even time to collect herself before her world flashed and the explosion deafened her.
It took several moments, entirely too long, before Kino understood she was face down on the pavement. She climbed to her feet. There was blood in her mouth and she'd bitten her tongue, but all her teeth were accounted for. The ringing in her ears was already fading. Scrapes all over, she'd be really sore tomorrow.
She looked back. There was no sign of the car. In fact, the whole hairpin turn was gone, fallen away. The granite face had shielded them from the blast and the flying rocks.
Kino walked gingerly to the edge. She watched a cloud of dust settle, until it revealed dying fire light and the car's wreckage amid a drift of massive boulders.
Whew! Overkill works.
"Hey Hermes? You know those stories where revenge feels empty and pointless?"
"Wrong. That felt great."
"Uhm... that's not a good sign, Kino."
Kino's adrenaline faded. The sweat soaking into her winter clothes cooled and she was starting to shiver again. She was just limping away to lift Hermes off the ground when they heard the squeal of hard braking and the now-familiar rumble of engines. Kino looked across the ragged gap in the road.
She whispered a curse in a language she barely knew.
Twin cars had appeared out of the shadows at the opposite end of the chasm. In the moonlight Kino could see one was white as bone and the other the now familiar blood red. The wind brought the perfume of exhaust fumes and burnt rubber to her nose, and a harsh duet to her ears.
She brought friends. That's why the delay. She was waiting for her sisters. They were sneaking up on us and if I hadn't blown the road here they'd have been all over me – enough!
Kino drew her weapons and fired several rounds, shattering the tinted windshields, front and back. The muzzle flashes briefly illuminated the spectral visages of the cars' many, many passengers. The echoes of gunfire faded with the last of Kino's courage.
"Why are you doing this? What do you want from me?" she howled. "Who are you?"
The cars answered with a fresh blast of blinding light from their headlamps. Distortion-free music pounded from their speakers.
I don't know the language but that jungle-drum beat doesn't need any translation. That's a song about revenge, gloating over violence and blood. The three weird sisters chant a spell over the murderess as they flay her. The Song of the—
"Kino!" Hermes shout cut through the pounding in her head. "Don't listen!" Abruptly Kino saw the edge of the still-smoking chasm just beyond her booted toes. Somehow their hypnotic siren song was luring her to them.
They almost had me... again!
With a parting snarl, Kino lurched away from the brink and rushed over to Hermes. She set him upright and started wheeling him away, flat tires and all.
Behind them, she heard the cars turning around and driving off. The war-drum rhythm faded into the sound of her own heartbeat.
"They're on the move," Hermes warned her. "Put me down and patch up my tires. We better clear out as soon as we can.
Kino gently lowered Hermes onto his side and set to work.
"Hermes, there were two more of them." She heard the shake in her voice and forced her stoic mask back in place. "You didn't tell me there were more."
"I was hoping we only had the one to worry about."
"In fact, you've told me precious little about them!" It was very nearly an accusation. "What are they? It's time and way past time you explained—"
"You're right. I was hoping... never mind. The one we disabled is named Margaret. The others are Christine and Abigail. Those are just plays on much older names. A long time ago even by my standards, I helped two friends protect a good man from them. They never forget a grudge."
Kino's fingers were smarting from the cold and starting to go numb. She took a moment to breathe on them.
"Your last rider...?"
"I understand there wasn't much left when they were done. Kino, I'm sorry. They're only interested in you because you're with me. Once they smell blood-guilt they never give up a hunt. The Furies will not be denied."
"The what? The 'Furies?'"
No answer. Kino finished her patch job, found the pump in her gear and set to work again. "'Blood guilt?' You mean me? What do I have to feel guilty about?"
"How am I supposed to know? You'll hafta figure that one out."
"That king I shot in the arena? I do not feel the least bit guilty about that."
"Usually it's a family member."
"I don't have a family. You're the only..." And her voice trailed off. The image of the bandaged girl came to her again.
"...what? What is it?"
"You're over-inflating my tires."
"Ah! Sorry." Kino put away the pump and lifted Hermes back upright. "Uhmf! You been putting on weight, Hermes?"
"Very funny. No, not funny; you're wearing out. That's typical of the Furies, hound somebody until they can't fight back."
Kino mounted and kick-started the engine. "I never hurt Gia," she protested. "That was all her parents' doing."
"The Furies are not reasonable."
Being responsible travelers even now, they stopped at a local constable's to ask them to close the pass road. Nearby, Kino and Hermes found a hospitable looking glade well away from the highway, surrounded by protective, fragrant trees. She popped Hermes' kickstand down, yanked her goggles up over the brim of her hat and asked, "think we'll be safe here?"
"They have your scent, Kino; you're not safe anywhere. But if I remember the map right, the nearest detour will take 'em hours away. Plus they have their wounded sister to tend to. You get some sleep. Don't light a fire, though. Tomorrow morning we'll talk about what we should do."
Great! Now my own bike's bossing me around. She set up her replacement tent and crawled inside with a groan. I'm so sore. Can't take much more of this.
"Hermes, I think you need to tell me more about these 'Furies,'" Kino ordered, more crossly than she'd intended.
Hermes turned the tables by correcting her mangled pronunciation. Kino knew several languages and had more phonemes to draw upon than most, but words as foreign as "P'ri-mo-fu F'yu-ri-su" and "K'ri-sh'te-n" still taxed her. Hermes had learned her tongue passably, but spoke best the languages of his own origins.
"The er-en-ee-yees," Hermes pronounced carefully. "Spirits of vengeance. They're very old and dangerous, much older than me. For the longest time people settled their disputes by revenge and feuds and so forth. Well, I helped some friends protect a man from them. This was around when we all started to favor ideas like public trials and juries and law over private justice."
"Spirits of vengeance. This just gets better!"
"We saved him, but the Furies still hold a grudge against us after all this time."
"And they took on the form of cars, like you became a motorbike? Do they have riders like you do?"
"Kino, you need to sleep. Everything's better in the morning."
"Well I'm not going to sleep 'til I get an answer."
"They do," Hermes sighed, "anyone foolish enough to fall under their spell, and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. Kino, I'm trying to take you on a journey that's worthwhile and enlightening. If you can picture the exact opposite of that, there's your answer." With that Hermes fell resolutely silent.
But sleep remained far away. I've seen enough strange things not to doubt what Hermes is saying. There's no question we're up against something unnatural - supernatural! Kino remembered a night when she was still a little girl, when Hermes had run out of petrol and a wolf had attacked her. Back then, the woman called "Master" had saved her. My, what big guns you have, gran'ma!
Tonight that same wild fear ran loose in her skull, spun the wheels in her head ever faster. This is a nightmare! I thought I was so grown up and tough... the people I saw tonight inside those cars... please oh please I do not want to die and wake up in there!
...Stop it Kino! You're psyching yourself out. If you're not going to sleep then - think! What "blood guilt?"
There's that king, but he was endangering your life. He'd brought about plenty more deaths and ran his town into the ground. Everybody else was self defense. Weren't they? That Tatanan and that guard in the monitoring station and... whoa! Just how many people have you gunned down, Kino? First was that old crazy woman. Then those three slavers. For someone who doesn't go looking for trouble you sure leave a lot of corpses behind. Is that what this is about?
...no. Kino, just stop. You know this is about Gia.
Is it? Heck, Gia's just about the only person I didn't kill! I didn't–
You didn't do anything. You did – nothing.
Kino sat up with the force of the revelation.
Was I asleep? ...Voices? Are they here? Kino crept out of her tent like a cat.
"It took all three of us to hold them off last time." Hermes' voice.
"But... but we're nowhere near so powerful, thrice-great one." A high pitched, childlike voice.
"Speak for yourself, child. I am the wise wolf and I fear no foe." This third voice feminine... and haughty, the impeccable tones of an aristocrat.
"That doesn't sound very wise to me." The child's voice again.
Who are they? Kino slithered closer and slowly moved a final branch aside.
She saw two figures sitting by Hermes. The first was a prepubescent whose white robe and hair glowed in the moonlight, her pale, cherubic face framed by twin black goat-horns. The other, a regal woman, knelt primly with a luxuriantly furred fox or squirrel tail curled around her knees. Kino blinked, because what she was seeing made no sense.
"We were young then," Hermes said, trying to buck up the little girl. "Not much older than you, and we held out."
"We all have mortal consorts we'd do anything to protect, Lord Hermes."
The sheep-girl nodded emphatically. "Might you... maybe you could take her back to the hatchery?"
"Aye!" The wolf-woman nodded. "Even the sisters could not breach the wall."
"The keeper would never—" Hermes started to say. But before he could finish, the wolf-woman caught Kino's scent and both newcomers vanished without even moving.
If you think I'm surprised by your tricks, guess again. I've got a pretty good idea now what I'm dealing with... and how epically in over my head I am.
Kino emerged from her crouch. She could just see two sets of wide eyes gleaming balefully in the darkness, studying her. "Who are they, Hermes?"
"Friends," Hermes answered. "Don't be frightened. I called them here to help."
"I see. I've figured it out, Hermes. This is all my fault." Kino faced those red glinting eyes, like animal-eyes reflecting Hermes' headlamp. "Hermes said they hunt those who feel guilty. I failed to protect a woman named Gia. I never considered what harm my home might do to other people."
Kino stopped talking long enough to reassert her control. But by that time, the eyes had disappeared and she was alone with Hermes.
"Are you sure about that, Kino?" Hermes asked gently. "You've always said it's not your job to change the places you visit."
"I don't have the right. Who am I to travel the world and pass judgment over everyone? That means the bad things places like Koth-Shem do, they aren't my fault."
Kino plunked down on the dirt next to her best friend and confidant, now her confessor. "But by the same rule... it's my responsibility to set my own house in order. Because who else will?"
"You're talking about that town, aren't you? Not sure I agree with that logic. You no longer claim that place as your home, right?"
"I'm probably the only person from there whose judgment and ethics are whole and intact. So it's all up to me. Sometimes it's not what we do that's so wrong, but what we fail to do. I didn't even think to do anything until..."
Kino faltered for a moment, and turned her face away. Her composure, once so reliable, had failed her yet again. This more than anything else let Hermes know how grave things were.
"...until it was too late... until it destroyed Gia. It's my fault. The Furies have every right to chase me."
"That's a noble sentiment, but I still think if that's why you feel guilty, you're being too hard on yourself. How can you change a whole town?"
"I could have warned people. Told the neighboring towns. Something!" She hugged her knees to her chest. "Anything but fooling around with Gia in the back of her parents' truck. Oh, I'm sure they figured it out!"
"Then why'd you do it?"
"'Cause she's adorable. ...was." At that Kino hid her face behind her knees, like a turtle jerking back into its shell.
That stained gauze sling under her nose...! The instant Kino had seen it, something deep inside her broke. Deep inside her that broken something screamed "aaaaaaaaahhh!" without ever stopping, ever. I may go mad.
"They were already headed to that hospital," Hermes said to the chestnut-brown pelt still peeking out from the overcoat's embrace. "You weren't–"
"I can't help the way I feel. 'The Furies are not reasonable.' I've done things I'm not proud of, but I always had a fair excuse, or it wasn't something important. I've never felt ashamed before."
"Huh! So is that why you fought against that king back in the arena? A trial run?"
"I suppose it must be. When we ended up in that rotten place, what had happened to Gia just... pushed me into doing things and taking all sorts of stupid, unnecessary risks." Kino kept her face hidden, even in the darkness, though now she could keep her voice even and steady.
"Yeah, I knew something was off. You were acting weird the whole time."
Kino finally peeked out at the world again. "I did change the place, for better or worse. I tried. Honestly, I guess I didn't care much if I died trying."
"Not good. The 'way you feel' has given the Furies exactly the excuse they need. So tell me the truth, how do you feel about dying now?"
She smiled a little; she knew the answer Hermes wanted. "I don't want to die."
"Good. Alright, then! Those two you just saw, they're gonna help us out. But I'm afraid the best anybody can manage is to hold the Furies off and buy us some time."
"To do what, make out my will? They're immortals! The muscle cars are nothing, just a mask, a manifestation, like you. How do we win against that?"
"We outmaneuvered 'em once, but they've been scheming ever since to get back at me. I won't lie about the odds. These are the ghosts that haunted the oldest ghost story humanity can remember. If you do get away, it'd be the second time in all of history."
"That song..." the traveler whispered. "They really are going to kill me and they'll laugh afterwards. Hermes, what are we going to do?"
Once they smell blood-guilt they never give up the hunt.
The Furies are not reasonable.
The Furies will not be denied.
The child wanted to go back to them, but the wolf woman put a gentle, restraining hand upon the godling's shoulder. "I think they need a little privacy, dear. Let's give them some time." The strange pair retraced their steps in the night, found and hopped aboard the customary apple cart. The she-wolf took the reins and urged her horses forward.
Horo had been for many centuries a simple fertility goddess. And as anyone in such circles knows, fertility goddesses were common as dirt and fading from relevance. But not her, no indeed - Horo had ambitions! She had left her comfortable homelands behind and taken a string of clever merchants as familiars. In an age where "plenty" meant gold rather than grain, she would again be a goddess of bountiful harvests.
And it was a wise and prestigious thing to name as friend and debtor someone as famed and highly regarded as Hermes Trismegistus. Provided, of course, they actually survived this coming conflict with the hags.
"I feel so sorry for him," Horo's companion said sadly, shaking her head so her long white tresses rustled. "I know how I'd feel if the Dream-slayers were after Rika."
Horo nodded. The child spoke rightly. "The Furies have claimed even one of the Endless. What chance does the mortal have? Lord Hermes is grasping at straws."
"Haauuwauu, don't say that! No matter how bleak things look, nothing's predestined. You hafta believe that!"
Horo turned to regard her earnest, innocent-looking companion. Little Hanyuu had a bad reputation as a bungler. The child in her zeal and inexperience had nearly destroyed her own protectorate and brought about unspeakable suffering, suffering even to make gods weep. She had been humbled and, unlike so many of her elders, owned deep wells of sympathy. But oh, men wisely feared Hanyuu in her aspect of wrath - the nightmarish, intestine-devouring "white lord!" Even Hanyuu's consort, the witch Frederika, was formidable after a fashion.
No doubt having a friend in this promising "goddess of unintended consequences" would come in handy too.
The next morning was the tipping point, the most dangerous moment. It was early morning, icy cold. The shiny-wet blacktop road cut through a forest and twin drifts of crunchy brown leaves lined either side. And The Pact was in jeopardy.
"No, I'm not going to do it!" Hermes told her quietly. He was trying to get Kino to cool off but it wasn't working.
Kino just kicked the ignition harder. The engine spun but Hermes was not about to start. With a disgusted growl she dismounted, and for a moment considered shoving Hermes over. Then she did something she'd never done... she walked away from him.
"You won't get far on foot," Hermes called out.
"Farther than I'll get on you," she called back.
"Kino, don't be stupid. We're wasting time."
"You're supposed to take me where I want to go, right? Well why won't you?"
"I am not taking you back there. That place has gotten you into enough—"
"If you won't take me back home, then I'll walk. The only way—"
"That place is not your home! And I swore never to take you back there. That's how we got into this mess—"
"No, -I'm- in this mess because those three have been holding a grudge against -you- since before I was born!"
"You're not getting out of it by getting rid of me!" Hermes shouted across the growing distance.
"This is all a spiteful game, isn't it? They can't hurt you directly so they—"
"They lash out at the people I care about!" Hermes shouted her down.
Kino stopped. This only ends with me walking back to Hermes, and we both know it. But I'm just not ready yet. She started walking again.
"I'm getting out by going back home. If my plan—"
"Kino, I'm sorry, but your plan is ludicrous."
She stopped. "You have a better one?"
"'Blow up the hospital?' Kino, you're smarter than that. What's that going to accomplish?"
"Nothing!" Kino whirled on Hermes. "Except it means I took a stand against what goes on there. It'll get the Furies off my back. What that town does to their own kids is one thing, now families like Gia's are taking their kids there. That can't go on, Hermes!" Kino stomped her booted foot on the dusty path. "It's wrong and it's evil and I've got to take some stand against it!"
Even the morning birds had shut up.
"Stop that," Hermes scolded.
"You have never once given two figs about good and evil and you know it."
Kino hissed and gritted her teeth, stung. But just as she drew in breath she reconsidered, exactly as Hermes had hoped. Kino was Kino and even in this state he could ensnare her with a philosophical discussion.
"Is that what you really think of me? As a traveler I'm an outsider, without the means or the right to change things. But this once I'm not the outsider. This time I'm involved whether I like it or not." Kino's shoulders straightened and she set her feet firmly, as if bracing for a gale. "Being a traveler's not a license to abdicate all moral responsibility. If I do that I'm just running away all over again. I am done with that!"
"I see," Hermes answered, trying to placate her. "Alright. Your home is evil and -we- are going to take a stand against it. But we need to go in... with a plan... that will work."
That was the right approach. Kino walked back and pointedly sat down on Hermes again, hard enough to make his shocks creak. Neither said anything for a while, until Kino finally cracked a smile.
"I'm sorry, Hermes. I've never been chased around like this and I hate it."
"I'm sorry I got you involved in this useless old feud. You know, this is the first genuine shouting match we've ever had?"
"True. I mean, we sometimes snipe at each other. But that's just 'cause we're together so much we inevitably get on each others' nerves. You're still my best friend."
Master taught me that grown-ups are level headed and hide their feelings, and here I am squandering precious time throwing a tantrum.
Kino leaned across his handlebars, and the next time she spoke her voice was gentle and in control again.
"When did... surviving become so complicated? This is gonna get bloody, I just know it. Hermes, so much has happened. I really have changed. I'm... I'm feeling more these days. But it's so hard to keep those feelings reined in. And now they've brought the Furies down on us. Is this progress? Is this the road you wanted me to take?"
"Would you go back?"
"Then yes. You have feelings, you just pretend you don't; only crazy people don't have feelings and pretend they do. Anyway I told you, I promised myself never to take you back home. That place is poison."
"You've gotta break that promise, Hermes. Or I'm dead."
She let those words hang in the air, then she straightened and kicked the ignition. This time, the engine started.
The race is on, Kino thought. She opened up the throttle.
"Speaking of poison," Hermes said, "you know the Furies were depicted with snakes in their hair?"
"Is that so."
"It's pretty good symbolism. People who've been bitten by them get volatile and irritable. Those are just the early symptoms. Before long the Furies utterly corrupt and enslave their drivers."
Kino took the hint, and her hands tightened around the bars. "Got it. So, how do I draw out the venom?"
"You're already doing the right things," Hermes told her. "Just don't try to pretend everything's okay when it's not. That poker face of yours? Lying to others is sometimes necessary, but don't lie to yourself."
Where are we going?
-Where do you wanna go?
So Kino rode. She rode fast and hard. They expected a roaring engine and burning headlights to pounce at every bend. It didn't happen.
They're behind us... somewhere.
Day and night, Hermes kept up the chatter to help her stay awake. They planned, they plotted, and they ran. Kino and Hermes had been together so long they functioned as one. Close calls that would normally shake them and call for a break - they ignored and plowed on.
One afternoon, Kino paused at a familiar intersection.
"Master," she murmured.
If they made a left, the dirt path would take them deep into a forest, and to the closest thing Kino had to a real home. Kino found herself fighting a terrible yearning for those reassuring walls, for a familiar bed to hide under.
But... the tough, unsentimental old woman had made it clear Kino was an adult and a friend now, no longer the "kid sidekick" she'd put up with for a few fleeting years. And certainly not family, Kino reluctantly admitted.
"She can't protect you," Hermes chided.
He was right, of course. The last time Kino had visited Master, she'd owned a walker. It was strange, seeing somebody Kino had thought so mighty, so humbled. But she knew the onetime mercenary would deduce Kino was in trouble, and would insist on helping. She might even prefer launching some suicidal delaying tactic against Kino's pursuers to the indignity of her sunset years.
"I know. And it wouldn't be fair to ask." Kino twisted the accelerator and left the dirt path behind.
Onward! Day, night, and day again. Then late the next night, they caught sight of the lights, a town on top of rolling hills, its white hospital set uppermost on the ridgeline.
"Ironic," Hermes said.
"Here we are again, but you've come so far from the day I had to teach you to shift gears."
Kino smiled a little, despite her fatigue.
Soon Kino knocked at the gate house, and a familiar old man came to greet them.
"You again? What're you doing back so soon?"
"It got really cold. I need to thaw myself out and then pick up some better winter gear," Kino answered.
"Aye," the guard nodded as she helped him with the bamboo portcullis. "It's uncommonly cold, even for being so close to midwinter. Don't start up that engine so late and be waking folks up.
He smiled the town's lopsided smile. With a friendly wave, Kino walked Hermes inside the gate, toward an inn.
"Time to put the plan in motion, Kino," Hermes said mournfully.
"I just want to say, that was masterful riding—"
"Hermes, stop. We'll see each other again. Don't start talking like that."
But Kino didn't try to hide the long look she gave Hermes before she entered the inn. The door was open, and no one was about. She clomped up the stairs.
Same room that Gia rested in after the operation. Hermes has a cruel sense of irony. Again, Kino thanked the fates that Gia's family had not chosen her parents' hotel. Had they, had her parents called her "Ruri" after she had seen Gia so mangled, and smiled those awful smiles at her, Kino could imagine herself gunning down her own family in a red haze. There was only so much anybody could take.
And then there would surely be no escaping the Erinyes.
She shook her head. Such a vile fantasy had to be the Furies' poison at work. Focus, girl!
Kino opened the door, to find the wolf woman stretched out on the bed in Gia's place, the sheep girl tending to her.
"You're hurt!" Kino blurted and rushed over.
"Should'a seen it," the woman answered as she sat up. "I was grand. We don't have a lot of time. Get to it."
The sheep girl pointed to a closet. Kino went in and found a pink dress hanging. It was her size but otherwise very much like the one she'd worn the day her parents...
Crueler and crueler, Hermes!
Kino changed and emerged. She forced herself not to stare at the woman's tufted canine ears or the black spiraled horns the little sheep girl bore. What company!
"You're Horo and Hanyuu, aren't you? Hermes told me."
"Nice to meet—" Horo stopped to cough. "...you, Kino. Got yourself into a fine mess, eh? I hope you've put your affairs in order."
"Thanks for helping out."
"It's wise to have one such as Hermes in my debt," Horo answered. "I gave the harridans a merry chase. But I'm afraid I'm all in now. The best I can do is—" She coughed again. "...sorry. Best I can do now is help out here."
"I'm not doing much better," Kino admitted. "I am... tired!"
So much accomplished while we rode. How much of a puppet-master is Hermes?
At that moment, the sheep girl reappeared from the closet, her movements so hushed that Kino hadn't even realized she'd gone. She wore Kino's leathers and khaki trench coat, and held Kino's hat in tiny pale hands. "It's a little big on me," she said.
Kino wasn't surprised; this was all according to the plan. "Sorry it's not clean," Kino said.
"Best if it has your scent on it," Hanyuu answered with a little smile.
"You take care of Hermes," Kino said quietly, mustering that stoicism of hers to keep her voice even.
Hanyuu gulped. "Haauu! I thought he was s'posed to take care of me."
Horo laughed and gave the sheep girl a wink and a thumbs-up. "Ride fast and far, little one."
With a parting victory sign, Hanyuu closed the door behind her.
"Are they in for a surprise!" Horo said to Kino with a fierce grin.
"Pardon... she doesn't look like she can handle herself."
Horo set to cleaning her scrapes with a long ropey tongue. "She can't. Ulf! But if we're lucky she'll make some ulf! horrid blunder. Her blunders are the stuff of ulf! nightmares." She noticed Kino was staring, shrugged and continued cleaning. "Shame really. I could make a fortune on video rights."
Kino peeked out the window, and caught a glimpse of "herself" walking Hermes down the street toward the gate.
"Has she ever ridden a motorcycle before?"
"He'll hafta teach her. I understand that's how you learned."
Kino's eyes bulged and she stifled a curse. Horo cackled.
But the wolf-woman's cheerful confidence was feigned. She had eaten her grain and unveiled herself, manifested to mortal eyes as a titanic she-wolf. She had exerted her full might, yet barely had the strength to delay the crones. Horo had limped back to the inn, beaten. All too soon it would be Hermes and Hanyuu's turn, and they would return in a similar sorry state, if they returned at all.
"Let's both get some sleep. We start bright and early tomorrow morning. I expect we'll have a week to work without worrying. You did bring up ulf! your sleeping bag?"
"Uhh..." Kino stammered.
"Pity. Enjoy the rug." Horo allowed her canine teeth to show as she said it.
My, what big teeth you have, gran'ma.
With that, Horo stretched luxuriantly and wrapped the blankets around herself with a big sigh of contentment. Her bushy tail rippled gently.
"Kidding," the wolf-woman finally said. "You'll find plenty of pillows and blankets squirreled away under the bed."
While the details of the plan grew to Byzantine proportions, the essence of it was simple. Kino and Hermes had worked it out en route, though how he'd communicated it to his friends was anyone's guess.
Their target was the hospital.
More specifically, the building itself wasn't important at all, and blowing it up wouldn't help. The target was the people who worked there. The surgeons.
Obviously, brain surgery is not simple. If the surgeons and assisting nurses were taken out of the picture, the townsfolk couldn't just pick up scalpels and continue the abominable practice. Oh, they'd almost certainly try. They'd kill some of their children in the effort.
So what next? They couldn't easily find brain surgeons from elsewhere who'd willingly help them.
"Kill the surgeons, and that'll be the end of it," Kino concluded.
"Logical. But a murder spree," Hermes had argued, "is not the way to placate your guilty conscience."
Still, it came to spying on the hospital, and making certain they knew exactly who came in and out. One day Kino had watched from a distance as a family brought their twelve-year-old to the door. She observed coolly and dispassionately.
There'll be time later to wail and tear my hair. If I'm lucky.
Even Horo was surprised by the next move: it was time to throw a party.
Don't try to pretend everything's okay when it's not.
The unlikely pair sat in a cafe, taking a rare break from their work. Horo had expertly concealed her ears with a cleverly modified barrette and her long hair, though her usual cowl was at the ready behind her neck. She also wore a skirt, and Kino felt it'd be pushing her luck to ask where she hid the long, bushy tail.
How many people like her just go around unnoticed?
"It's an end of the year party," Kino explained. "The townsfolk do that sort of thing all the time."
"I thought that this operation removed their ability to enjoy such things," Horo said.
"It does. But they do all the normal things anyway. The men play poker and tinker with their cars. The women knit and gossip. And yes, they throw parties at the winter solstice just like everybody else."
"Horo, the more awful a thing people do, the more frantically they try to pretend everything's normal and perfect and fine."
Horo looked around at the vapid, empty smiles that surrounded them, had surrounded her since she'd arrived in this miserable little town. And just for a moment, she let revulsion and even fear show on her face.
"Humans," Horo chuffed, disgusted.
"Oh, I wouldn't act like that now," Kino said softly, almost conspiratorially. "I'm the only one whose life is on the line here. I'm just a pawn. This is all a game to your kind, isn't it?"
Horo looked at Kino carefully, and Kino could tell she was tightly controlling a fierce temper. "Such things are for Hermes to teach you about, or not, at his pleasure. But if you're going to be churlish I've done plenty already and can be on my way."
Kino abruptly reached out a hand and grasped Horo's. It doesn't feel quite human, she noted, but she hid her reaction and looked into Horo's strange crimson eyes.
"That's better," Horo smiled.
So they printed up fliers inviting the entire medical staff to the holiday party. If anyone noticed the leaflets were different this year, and failed to mention who was hosting the gathering, they paid no attention. A holiday party was, after all, such an innocuous and harmless sort of thing. Perfectly normal.
There was one hitch. Kino had just finished delivering the notices to the post office when a group of men stopped her in the street.
There were three men in guards' uniforms. Unlike the graybeard at the gate these were strapping men who towered over her. The fourth man was tall and thin. He wore a mustache, a canvas trench coat and a broad-brimmed hat.
"Young lady, a moment of your time, if you please." It wasn't a request. Kino halted.
"It has come to our attention that you are not a citizen of this town."
"No, of course I'm not."
"Then who are you and what business have you here?"
"I'm a traveler."
"Travelers have brought trouble into this city before," the man said with disapproval.
Yes, travelers have brought trouble here, haven't they? I remember you, Inspector. You're older now, but oh, I remember you!
"I'm only visiting." Kino tried to sound meek and harmless, and she ended up sounding a bit like Hanyuu. Wonder if she's faking too.
"You're wearing a dress made by our local weavers."
"I prefer to blend in, sir. Besides, I like it. Have I done something wrong?"
"Wrong...? Not precisely. But you must understand, this village has its own ways. You're welcome to visit, but do not overstay your welcome. You told our gatekeeper your time here would be brief."
'Our own ways...' Yeah, Chai-dan and Veldelval used vague words like that.
"But it's so cold out there!" Kino whined.
"There are other towns nearby. I'm sure you could winter over with them."
"I understand. Would another week be alright?"
"Hmph! It's an imposition, though I see no need to be uncharitable. But no longer."
"Yessir. Thank you, sir."
With that, the guards followed the man in the hat away.
Kino remembered the first time she'd met this man. The Inspector had instructed her father to "dispose" of his defective daughter. Then her predecessor, Kino the First, had died saving her. Another morsel of guilt for her to gnaw on.
Kino pondered. Something... doesn't fit. Then her face lit with realization.
By the time she next met Horo, she'd decided to take a risk. She asked that the inspector receive an invitation to their little party too.
The inspector watched the stranger in the pink dress walk away. Her stooped posture and humble voice mollified him a bit. Perhaps she was telling the truth, and he was worrying without need.
But there was something...
He turned a frown upon the gently smiling guards accompanying him. "Have her watched." The guards saluted and left him to his peregrinations.
He did not like visitors in his city, nosing about, intruding in matters that were not their concern. It was far from the first time. There had been many visitors recently, mostly those who'd married into wealth. All of them had paid handsomely to avail themselves of his city's unique services. What business did that silly woman in the pink dress have hanging around? It did not augur well.
He would need to research her background. Perhaps if he was lucky she'd have no relatives living outside, and he could simply have her spirited away to the hospital. The odds were against such an easy solution, of course. What was ever easy?
The inspector decided to go about his daily business, checking upon his carefully crafted domain. He felt tense and needed to relax. A visit to his wives was in order; he'd been neglecting them.
So the inspector proceeded. But he frowned as he did so, and tapped his mustache restlessly. For he had a nagging feeling he'd forgotten something, something of importance.
The more awful a thing people do,
the more frantically they try to pretend everything's normal.
Very late that night, Kino startled up from sleep. Her eyes darted 'round their room at the inn. Horo was awake, sitting on the sill and staring pensively out the window at the stars. The wolf woman glanced over at Kino, her furry tail drooping and tall canine ears twitching.
"You felt it too, eh?" Horo whispered. "You've become close to Hermes, haven't you?"
Kino climbed up out of the comfy little nest of blankets she'd made for herself on the floor and stood beside Horo. The window was open and Horo took occasional sniffs of the air.
The town lay spread below them, only a handful of scattered lights against the impenetrable blackness beyond. Somewhere out in it - Kino knew! - Hermes and little Hanyuu were fighting for their lives.
The wolf woman nodded. "We don't have much time now."
Horo was as wise as she claimed, and Kino's carefully neutral expression didn't fool her for a moment. So Horo did something she rarely did, and scratched Kino on the head as she might a forlorn puppy.
"You go back to bed. We have a big day tomorrow."
Kino nodded, and she forced a little smile on her face, because that's what brave people do when they're horribly worried and can't do anything else.
"You go back to bed. We have a big day tomorrow."
Kino turned to look at her companion. "Didn't you just say... exactly...?"
Horo looked startled too. Then, "Hmm! Yes, I expect all sorts of odd things like that tonight. Sleep through it, if you can. Oh! And you tell me immediately if you see or hear anything outlandish or if your neck starts itching."
Kino started to ask, then deduced from Horo's tone she'd probably sleep better if she didn't.
The wise wolf returned to her vigil, a silhouette against the stars. "Christine... meet Oyashiro."
The traveler snuggled back into her nest and pulled the blanket over her head.
The party started right on schedule.
Set in the hospital's lounge, it was a surprisingly fun if modestly budgeted little affair with colorful streamers, tables filled with food and plenty to drink.
Everyone showed, much to the quiet relief of the pair tending to the staff's every need. The two ladies, both attractive, well-groomed and modestly attired, were solicitous and entertaining and made certain to keep all the glasses filled.
Oddly enough, the party started dying out about half an hour after it began. Finally one young intern, who'd had an upset stomach and didn't eat or drink much, realized she was the only person conscious. Except for the help, of course.
Horo did something that made the intern collapse, caught her and settled her gently to the floor.
Kino finished cleaning the big cake-cutting knife she was holding just in case. She pocketed it and turned for the exit.
A truck with trailer was just backing up to the emergency entrance. Kino waved and guided it to a stop.
"How on Earth did you drive that thing, itty-bitty?" Kino called up to the driver.
"Don't ask," Hanyuu answered as she hopped out of the cab. "Everything ready?"
Kino nodded. "Wow... this is just like the trucks the raiders of Koth-Shem use."
"Don't forget to take Hermes out of the back," Hanyuu said over her shoulder as she rushed inside to join Horo.
Kino unhitched the tailgate and climbed in. Inside, manacles and chains dangled from the ceiling. One set had been used to secure Hermes.
"Almost looks like I'm rescuing you, eh Hermes?" Kino joked. Then she stopped, looking around her.
"What's wrong?" Hermes asked.
"I know this trailer. I spent days in it - this is the same truck!"
"Don't ask," Hermes said sternly.
Ye gods, Hermes! But she let the matter drop. Horo and Hanyuu were already at the tailgate with the first of their prisoners.
They were almost finished loading and manacling the unconscious bodies when Hanyuu called out a warning. The inspector's car was parking and he exited the vehicle.
"What the devil...?" He said.
Kino clenched her teeth. She knew where this would lead. So she took a deep breath and turned to face him.
And Kino smiled at him. Not the usual misshapen townsfolk smile, either. She motioned to her companions to carry on. "You're right on time. By which I mean your invitation's an hour later than everyone else's."
"Well, I expect this settles the Diazepam theft yesterday," he commented dryly. "Just what exactly are you doing, 'traveler?'"
"Surviving. Also putting an end to this. The Operation, I mean."
"Do you remember a little girl, wore a pink dress just like this one?"
The inspector jolted. Yup! He started backing away.
"That's good," Kino said with perfect calmness, perfect control. Someone who knew her as well as Hermes would know this was Kino at her absolute reptilian worst. "Because every detail of that day is burned into my brain. All of it: the way you told my father to kill me, the sun glinting on his knife, the way everyone laughed that idiotic, brain-damaged laugh."
He was about to answer when, with a lightning-fast move, Kino put the cake knife into his chest.
"...everyone except you."
He coughed some blood that spattered on Kino's face and hair. The pistol he'd been reaching for clattered to the ground. Behind her, she heard Hanyuu's horrified little squeak. Then the man crumpled and fell.
I wonder if this is even the same knife. Is it, Hermes?
For the second time in her life, she stood beside a truck, looming over a corpse.
For the second time in her life, she'd slain the king of a town and changed it forever.
For the second time in her life, a man in a trench coat lay bleeding at her feet.
"The Furies will not be denied," she quoted.
Is this the road you wanted me to take?
-Would you go back?
A few miles later, in a familiar flower patch that, sadly, was not in bloom, the little party stopped to celebrate and toast their victory with a final and unadulterated drink by the truck's headlights. Their charges were all safely manacled and would be unconscious for many hours.
"Smooth as silk," Kino crowed. "Hermes, you certainly know how to put together a plan."
"Smooth for you," Horo said. Her ears and tail had been liberated at last. "We're the ones who had to fight."
"I took one down, y'know." Kino countered. "I still have the scrapes to prove it."
She was back in her familiar clothing, and Hanyuu in her robe. The little one looked sad.
"I'm sorry you had to see that, Hanyuu," Kino said. "I imagine you're not used to such things."
At that Horo almost choked on her wine, but decided not to comment.
""So what happens to the doctors?" Hanyuu asked.
"I've got them, dear," Horo answered. "I'm to take them to this domed city Hermes told me of. They apparently are trying to cope with a dreadful plague. Need every doctor they can get."
Kino smiled. "Oh, I remember that place! Nice one Hermes. They'll never get out of there." Her voice trailed off.
"And we're doing a good deed besides, giving 'em doctors." Hermes added proudly.
"'Giving?' Good heavens, Hermes! I mean to sell them."
Kino and Hanyuu looked shocked.
"Don't worry, I'll give you all your share of the profits, which I expect will be significant. And I'm keeping the truck; must keep up with the times."
"I suppose they might suspect something otherwise," Kino said.
"Suspect us?" Hermes said. "Us? Why we're guileless as can be."
They clinked their glasses together. Well, except Hermes, of course. "How do you feel, Kino?" he asked.
Kino pulled herself up from a slump, unwilling even now to show she was so nearly spent. "Aside from making a profit on slave trading? Better. I mean... that was rotten and brutal, but it had to be done. People like Gia's parents won't be bringing their kids here anymore. And Kino, the first Kino I mean... I finally avenged him. But there's still one last step: I have to go find Gia and put her out of her misery." Kino didn't even try to hide the pain her voice betrayed. Then...
"You're all very wise. Do you suppose someday I'll be able to go home again, when the kids there all grow up normal and the brain-damaged ones are old and harmless?"
Horo and Hanyuu shared a look, then looked to Hermes. But whatever answer he was going to offer was drowned out by the rumble of engines.
The three ladies stood, startled. Kino's hand reflexively went to her holster, as if that would help.
The Furies. They're here.
Kino swayed a little, and Horo steadied her until she could reassert her control.
"It's our move now, Kino," Hermes advised. "Go on. They can't hurt you now."
"Don't back down," Horo added.
"But don't make any sudden moves," Hanyuu whispered.
Kino called upon the last of her strength, and advanced on the rumbling apparitions, one hand shielding her eyes. "Do you mind shutting those off? I've got something to say."
The engines fell silent. The headlights blinked off. Three silent menacing presences waited for her in the darkness. And this simple, cooperative courtesy gave Kino a thrill of relief and euphoria - by some miracle she really was going to get out of this without being ground into hamburger!
"I'm done," she proclaimed. "I did my duty. The hospital is finished. You have no claim on me any more. It's over."
Okay, did it work? Are they gone?
Then a set of headlights came on, followed by another. The beams crossed, shining on the blood red car in the center.
Kino realized what they wanted to show her just before the driver's side door opened. Her hand drew her .45 almost of its own accord.
Oh, damn them!
"Kino, no!" Hermes commanded. She froze.
Then someone jumped in front of her gun, arms outspread, blocking her shot. It was... Kino, his trench coat flapping? She blinked. No, it was Kana, winglets fluttering. Then it became Hanyuu.
Illusion? That was Kino's last thought before Horo repeated the trick and knocked her out cold. Just like before, Horo caught Kino before she could hit the ground. The traveler lay shivering in the frosted flowerbed.
Hanyuu lowered her arms and turned to address the sisters, eyes glinting red with defiance. "Haven't you done enough? You were trying to make her shoot. Leave her - alone!"
"Watch yourself, stripling..." the white car answered with a shrill voice.
"...Or we'll teach you to how to speak to your elders," the gray one continued.
"It is you who'd best watch yourselves," Horo growled back, "when this brave child grows up. Now go find someone else to torment."
The red car laughed, for they already had.
There was nothing more to be said. Hermes, Horo and Hanyuu, who together had defied the Sisters of Wrath, watched helplessly as Gia, wearing the damaged smile that reminded them of nothing so much as a jack-o-lantern carved by a clumsy child, sat back down inside the red Plymouth Fury and drove it away, leaving naught but an old-fashioned tune in her wake.
The Furies will not be denied.
Kino and Hermes created by Keiichi Sigsawa
The Furies created by Aeschylus
Christine created by Stephen King
Horo created by Isuna Hasekura
Hanyuu created by Ryukishi07
Kana created by ABe Yoshitoshi
Georgiana created by Nathaniel Hawthorne