- Rescue -
As the bandits moved around in the underbrush outside her campsite, Kino sighed. She had hoped that she could have settled things peacefully with their scout. She had identified the 'fellow traveler' as probably a bandit or highwayman casing her. Kino knew the type, and knew the best defense was to appear skilled enough and poor enough that he'd tell his comrades that she wasn't worth the hassle.
Shame this gang seemed to be stupid enough to think they could fight her. Kino looked back towards Hermes. "Could we outrun them, I wonder?" The magic that allowed her to open doors between world made things... inconspicuous. If she didn't focus, it told her Hermes was an unremarkable horse, the weapons in her holsters crossbows instead of guns. If the glamors on her gear was any indication, this world was pre-gunpowder. A bow could hit her on a motorrad, but swords would be nearly useless once she was in motion.
"Probably not on these roads," Hermes said. A primitive world may lack guns, but it also lacked good trails. They could ride overland, but not quickly, in a dark, unfamiliar forest.
Kino nodded, tensing, readying to draw. It would end with a death, then. Or a few.
Suddenly, a bolt of fire spread out from the ground between herself and the bandit scout. He jumped back and Kino leapt to her feet, trying to see where the assistance had come from. Of course, it was useless to stare into the darkness after being blinded by firelight. She backed up, placing a hand on where Hermes' seat would be, shifting her posture so that she could swing her leg over and ride while whatever happened happened. It wasn't her business after all.
A man with a large axe emerged from the trees, cutting off the scout's escape. "Where do you think you're going?"
"I don't got anything, honest! I'm just a scout… please don't hurt me!" The bandit dropped to his knees.
Kino saw two other men join the axeman. "What do you think?" the axeman asked one of his allies.
"He's right; he doesn't have anything really worth it. Give up your sword and knife and we'll let you go without Zolf casting another spell." The speaker was obviously the leader, for all that he was barely older than Kino herself.
"Magic, huh?" Kino murmured. She was still a bit skeptical on magic. A bit silly, since she'd seen so much of it recently, but she'd also traveled enough to know how technology could mimic it. It could really be magic or it could be a flamethrower.
But the bandit found the threat convincing, and, after disarming, he ran like they would chase him down. Instead, the leader of this new trio turned to Kino. "It's not safe out here for a lone traveller. At least not if you want to sleep."
"I'm not alone," Kino replied. "I have Hermes." She gestured so that the stranger would know who she meant. Hermes didn't say a thing. It had taken him a long time to learn that trick. Unfortunately, there were few places where motorrads -- or horses -- could talk.
The leader nodded. "So you do. If you like, though, the rest of my men have a camp that's about a half-hour's walk. It's not much, but you won't have to post a guard."
Kino was a light sleeper, but she didn't mind taking advantage of someone's hospitality, especially a fellow traveler's. It would be inconvenient if he was another bandit, but they knew where she was now either way. She gathered her things, and checked on Hermes. "Are you sure about this, Kino?" he whispered.
"One place is as good as another," she replied, both for Hermes and for the other travelers.
"My name's Zelgadis Graywords," the leader offered his hand, and Kino shook it. "My band and I are clearing out this area."
"My name is Kino. And you've met Hermes."
She ended up sitting by Zelgadis during dinner. Hermes was over trying to make conversation with the horses, something Kino suspected he'd fail at. Most of the 'band' were some mix of human and animal, and Kino had been grateful that the shadows covered whatever change of expression she'd had on walking up. It didn't seem to be unusual here, so she didn't comment on it. "So you all are really wizards?" she asked.
Zelgadis shook his head. "Zolf is, and I know a bit, but everyone else sticks to swords or axes. I admit I'm surprised that someone would travel with only a horse and crossbow. If someone gets too close, you won't have time to reload."
"I don't want to fight, but sometimes I find myself in that kind of situation. And I'm a good shot; it saves on reloading."
Zelgadis nodded, still staring at the mechanisms. "Those aren't exactly normal crossbows are they? Something's magical about them; my eyes slide right off them when I take a good look."
"I'm a traveler," Kino repeated. "And I come from far away, so it suits me to not look too strange."
"They look more like metal tubes with handles. What do you fire out of them? And how?"
It turned out that Zelgadis had heard of gunpowder. Not in detail but, enough that Kino could quickly explain to him the principles. "Most places, it's easier to have a sorcerer," he explained. "If you don't have magic, I can see why those would be useful, though."
"It's kept me out of trouble, despite what Hermes says."
Zelgadis raised an eyebrow. "Do you really think your horse talks?"
"It's getting him to not talk that's the trick."
- Reunion -
"We've been here before," Kino said.
Hermes was looking like a horse again, and the town guards insisted she walk him rather than riding. It was some rule about class. Kino didn't mind too much; it let her see more of the town than she could riding at speed. "How can you tell?" he asked her. "We don't have a map of how this world walking works."
"I recognize the signs," Kino answered. She was getting good at learning to tell countries apart when you couldn't trust straight roads and good maps. Worldwalking routes were circuitous, which meant you could take four rights and end up somewhere entirely different from where you started.
"Can you read the signs?"
Kino shook her head. The glamour that let her and Hermes pass without comment and understand spoken language didn't extend to making the signs legible. It was something of a pain in worlds where most people were expected to be literate, but many people would forgive a traveller who had problems with reading.
"I think someone's following us," Hermes said.
Kino looked, without turning her head, and thought she recognized the man in the tan cloak from other figures seen in the crowds today. "Mm…" she said. Last time she was in this world, she had been nearly attacked on the road. Perhaps this was a lawless sort of country. "Let's turn off into that alley," she suggested.
"Looking for trouble?" Hermes asked.
"Trouble seems to look for us. It's more I want to see what he wants."
So she turned off, leaning Hermes against the side of the alley but staying by his side in case she needed to ride out. The town guards would have to tolerate a small disturbance.
The man in the tan cloak had reached the entrance to the alleyway, but hesitated. Kino tried to make out his face, but the sunlight at his back obscured him. Something about him was familiar, though, which could just be that Kino had met so many people that everyone reminded her of someone. She took a step forward. "Good afternoon."
"Good afternoon," the man replied almost automatically, then startled, as if he hadn't meant to speak just then.
Kino did recognize the voice, and the hilt of the sword. "Are you… Mister Graywords?"
"The bandit-hunter? It is a small world," Hermes commented.
"So he does talk," Zelgadis muttered to himself as he walked towards Kino. "I suppose I can't pretend I didn't see you then." As he came away from the light, Kino noted that unlike when she had met him before, Zelgadis was going cloaked and hooded, leaving his face shadowed. Perhaps he was sensitive to the sun; she'd last met him at night. "Though right now, I'm more hunting information. Since you're a traveler, I thought you might know something."
"It's possible," Kino said. "I don't know if it will help you, but a lot of people like hearing traveler's stories anyway." Though, as her stories got stranger, few actually believed them, but that was how the world worked. Most people would listen to an interesting story even if it seemed unbelievable.
"Know anything about the Philosopher's Stone?" There was an intensity to Zelgadis's voice that Kino didn't remember from the first time she'd met him. The light made his face look inhuman… and, as they walked out of the alley, Kino realized that it wasn't the light. His face really had changed color since she'd met him.
"Philosopher's Stone…" Kino thought for a moment. "A few things, but it's a long story."
Zelgadis shrugged. "I have time to listen, if you don't mind walking me out of the city."
"Out of the city?"
"I'm not exactly welcome in most towns," Zelgadis explained. "But my band is camped in the outskirts, and that would be more comfortable."
Kino nodded. "That sounds fine to us." One thing she had learned about traveling was that some travelers had something like a home, and that home was people not a place. She was pretty sure she felt like that about Hermes; he was her constant companion and she couldn't imagine going on without him.
Maybe that was a weakness for a traveler, but Hermes was her partner. And his people were Zelgadis's partners.
- Reinvention -
Kino leaned against the wall, taking out the map she'd been making and a pencil. Making sure she didn't block the glow of Hermes' headlamp while she wrote was tricky. "Here again. At least I know where we are."
"We're in a city," Hermes said helpfully. "Hey, Kino, look next to you."
Someone had printed up a number of handbills, plastered on the corner of the building. Kino couldn't read them, but she knew what a 'wanted poster looked like. "Not reading is becoming a hassle." But she guessed the reason Hermes had called attention to the posters was that she recognized one of the faces. "I was right about the world."
"It's Mister Graywords again. He really gets around, but I wonder what he did?" Hermes asked.
Kino looked again, as if willing the ability to read the local language would come to her. "Whatever it was, this man and woman did the same thing from the similar marks." She traced out two other portraits. They were't any of the people she remembered Zelgadis traveling with: none of Zelgadis's band had been human women, and the man didn't look like Zolf or Rodimus.
"If you could take those down, I'd appreciate it."
Kino turned towards the alley to see who was speaking to her, not that she didn't recognize the voice. "We keep running into one another, Mister Graywords."
Zelgadis nodded. "You're lucky I was out of some necessary supplies; otherwise I'd never be in town, even hidden." Kino could see his face was almost entirely covered, making his features hard to identify.
It was late enough that few people were out, so Kino could easily remove the posters without trouble. "They'll probably go back up tomorrow."
"Tomorrow I'll be long gone. I don't suppose your talking horse can carry two, especially when I'm heavier than I should be."
"He's not exactly a horse," Kino said, just as Hermes said much the same thing.
Zelgadis laughed. "I didn't figure he was, any more than your firearms are really crossbows. But you still ride him."
"We ride together," Kino said. A motorrad wasn't quite like riding in something; she and Hermes had to work together to move. In some sense, riding Hermes was more like a horse, though different in the particulars.
"I think I can manage with him, if we go slow. The roads here aren't that bad," Hermes commented. "Even in the dark."
"Well, if Hermes thinks so, let me help you on. It might help to close your eyes," Kino said.
She ended up asking Zelgadis to remove his cloak. She loaned him her hat so his head would stay hidden. He'd ended up having a good sense of balance, so she barely felt him as they rode out of town: more as a weight in the back she had to counterbalance by loading her supplies onto Hermes' handlebars.
It wasn't a big town, so it was quick work to pass beyond the last settlements into fields. There wasn't even a town wall, with gate guards to ask why Kino and Zelgadis were out for a ride so late at night.
There was a small copse of trees where Zelgadis had made his camp. Kino noted that he was alone. "What happened to your band?"
It was, perhaps, the wrong question, from the way that Zelgadis face almost immediately seemed to fall. "We had a run in with something that was way outside our power class. Zolf and Rodimus didn't survive. And most of the rest of the band followed our employer instead of me."
Kino nodded as she stacked the wood for the fire. She remembered how Zelgadis had acted around his group, and thought that there had to be more to the story. She wasn't sure how to ask about it, though. Perhaps later, if he knew of any trouble on the roads.
"Are you two moving on too?" Zelgadis asked.
"We are," Kino said. "I don't tend to stay in one place often. No more than three days." She had to be a bit more flexible about how long she could spend in one world rather than one of her world's home countries -- they were often too big to be crossed in a few days -- but she could keep the rule of not stopping for long.
"Do you get lonely?"
Kino shook her head. "I have Hermes. And, even if I didn't, there is always something new to see when you are traveling."
"I suppose so."
The next day, when they had parted ways with Zelgadis, Hermes asked, "Hey, Kino?"
"Do you think Zelgadis wanted to come with us?"
Kino considered this. "I don't know. I think he wanted more to know how to be a lone traveller." It wasn't like being in a band, at all. That was closer to being in a town, albeit one that travelled. She hoped he'd find out how, or find something that would satisfy him, but Kino believed that everyone had their own path. She could show Zelgadis hers, but she couldn't make it easy for him to walk it.
- Return -
This time she was passing through following rumors of other worldwalkers, people she'd wanted to meet. She'd known she'd hit the world she privately called the World of Too Much Magic, after Zelgadis's stories, and figured she'd stop for supplies and a chance to sleep in an inn.
"Though tomorrow can we find a world with mechanics?" Hermes asked. "I think I need a check up."
They were all right on gasoline, which was good, as Kino was nearly certain refueling Hermes here wasn't an option unless someone could tune him to run on magic. "There should be a world like that nearby. Are you feeling all right for tomorrow's travel?"
They were in a port town, and Kino could smell the ocean even in the streets. It meant there were plenty of other travelers in inns and taverns, sailors and merchants and general adventurers. Kino herself didn't stand out, if the presence of magic covering her wasn't noticed. Then again, this was the world that had plenty of magic around.
She could leave Hermes in a stall, under the glamor that made most people assume he was a horse, and get something for dinner. The tavern was packed, making Kino have to weave through the crowds to order something, then balance her meal and drink in one arm as she ate with the other hand.
A seat opened up, and she slipped into it, setting her plate and mug down and applying herself to filling her stomach before the stew got cold.
"I haven't seen you in a while," the man across from her said.
"I've been traveling," Kino replied. "How have you been, Zelgadis?" She looked up. It had been several years, but he didn't look all that different. She didn't even think he looked older, but stone skin might not wrinkle like flesh.
He shrugged. "It's been eventful. One thing after another. You?"
"Much the same," Kino said. "The life of a traveller isn't boring."
Zelgadis nodded. "Did you ever think of giving it up?"
"Mmm?" Kino said. She had, occasionally. There had been beautiful places and kind people, and that was why she had a hard rule of no more than three days in a town. If she was ever tempted to break it, that would be a clue she was ready to give up traveling. "Not seriously. Are you?"
"Maybe," Zelgadis said. "I was looking for something, and I was told it doesn't actually exist. By someone who would know."
"There's a difference between traveling for a reason and just traveling," Kino said. "To a traveller, seeing new things is its own reason."
"No. It's how things are. If the thing you were looking for was just an excuse to travel, then you should keep doing it without the excuse. If not, then you should stop doing it now that you know you won't find what you're looking for by traveling." Kino punctuated this by taking a bite of her stew. "Just because I am a traveller does not mean I think it is the best for everyone, only the best for me. I've met people who do different things that make them happy."
Zelgadis nodded. "Thing is, I've never not been a traveller. Even as a child, I travelled with my grandfather. Now… well, a friend invited me to stay with her."
Kino nodded. "Why not? Just…"
"If you don't like it, remember you can go back. You won't get back the time you spent in one place, but the road is always there."
The next day, Kino repeated the conversation to Hermes.
"Do you think you'll ever stop like Zelgadis?" Hermes said.
KIno shook her head. "Every traveller travels for a different reason. I would stop only if I could see the world, all the worlds, from one place. Secondhand isn't the same." Or if she found something she wanted more from her life, but she couldn't imagine what it was.
- Reliance -
This time, Kino had set out to visit Zelgadis on purpose. Mostly on purpose; her travels took her past his world, and he had told her which city he had been planning on staying at. She wasn't sure if he would still be there, granted -- whether his attempt to give up traveling would stick -- but his friend might know.
She was only planning on staying a few days, as was her custom, but on her visits to his world, she'd never seen the country of Saillune. It was pretty, as cities went, but worn enough that it felt like people actually lived there and its care was genuine community feeling, rather than attempts to sweep ugliness under the carpet. Kino had seen enough of cities she thought she could get an idea of their character as she and Hermes rode the streets, but knew she'd not seen enough that she couldn't be wrong.
Of course, that meant finding one in a city of thousands. "Perhaps we should have asked Mister Graywords where the friend he was staying with lived," Kino said to herself after the novelty of a new place had worn down and they'd stopped at an tavern for an early dinner and a place to settle Hermes.
The stablehand, hauling water to settle the real horses, stopped and gave her a look. "Mister Graywords? Is he related to Princess Amelia's husband? I didn't think he had any living family. You really must be from far away," she said. "The wedding was big news."
"I am a traveler. I haven't been back to this part of the world in years," Kino admitted. "I just know that the last time we met, he said he was going to be staying with a friend from Saillune City."
Eventually she puzzled it out, making the stablehand laugh at her questions, but convinced her to send notice to the palace that Kino and Hermes were looking for Zelgadis. A large tip helped.
"I wonder why Zelgadis didn't tell us who his friend was," Hermes said. "Do you think that was the princess?"
Kino shrugged. "It could be. Maybe he was worried about my opinion."
"Your opinion?" Hermes asked.
"That I would think he was giving up travel for being royalty and wealthy," Kino told him. He needn't have worried; pursuit of wealth didn't seem to fit what she knew of him. And there were easier ways of getting wealth than happening to meet a princess, after all.
They ended up having morning tea with Zelgadis and the Princess. Zelgadis had even arranged for Hermes to attend.
Princess Amelia was an animated woman, who had met Zelgadis when traveling. Exchanging stories, Kino discovered it had been shortly after one of her own visits. "It's a shame you didn't stick around, Miss Kino," the princess said. "I would have liked to meet you earlier, and you could have met our friends, Miss Lina and Mister Gourry."
Kino nodded. "Though from what you tell me, you were in quite a bit of trouble."
"That's true," Princess Amelia admitted. "So maybe that was for the best. It is nice to meet you now. And Mister Hermes too."
But Amelia couldn't stay long. Zelgadis helped her to her feet. "Honestly," she said, but she didn't protest more than that. She kissed him, and her hands lingered on his before she left. Kino noticed the bones of her face had seemed sharp, and the skin under her eyes was dark.
After she left, Zelgadis returned to his seat. "Is she all right?" Kino asked.
"It's been a rough couple of months," Zelgadis admitted. "We've been trying to have a child. We had a couple of false alarms, then Amelia got pregnant and miscarried. She still wants to try again, but…" He stared at the dregs in his teacup, not meeting Kino's eyes. "I know it's her duty to have an heir, but I'm starting to wonder if we even can. Together, I mean. I don't know what changes to my body were made in that respect, and the priests here can't really help there."
Kino stared at her own tea, stirring it absently with a spoon. Even Hermes was silent for once. She considered all she'd seen on her travels: the way royalty behaved when the line of succession was called into question, the wonders and limits of medicine, and the way people could be about children, or potential children.
So she chose. "Can you and the princess leave the country for a bit? I have something I'd like to show you."
That was how Kino ended up riding out of town with two extra people in tow. And how Zelgadis Graywords took to the road again.